Barbara Hammer: The Carousel Microcinema’s inaugural program is so fortunate to begin with a wonder of poetic phrasing by Barbara Hammer.
Pond and Waterfall is a silent aquatic rollercoaster adventure. Hammer plunges us headlong into radiantly saturated freshwater vegetation. Her deft optical-printing suspends us in underwater sunlight and chlorophyll before she pulls us into rapids, waterfalls, canyons and shoreline. Occasionally she lets us come up for air; but we forget to breathe because the horizon line, the cascades, or the reflection bouncing off the lake’s surface overwhelms us.
Film is a thing. It need not represent a thing.
It can simply be what it is. As the 16mm camera, housed in a waterproof casing tumbles through reeds, rapids and polished rock, Hammer reminds us that the same goes for the skins we’re in. Skins are things. They do not represent a thing. They simply are. ( And so a stalwart lesbian filmmaker whose best known works taught me how to have a fearless voice and laugh about it, contemplates the force and benevolence of nature.
(And I, the strident black essentialist, am reminded that I really like flowers.)
Our bodies, with Hammer, go. We tumble into the sensual gleeful tides of life. This is sensual immersion. This is freshwater ablution. Barbara Hammer is a cinematic acrobat. Her camera bobs and weaves within the waves. We cling to its lens. Our toes grow webs and kick each frame through the gate, across the rapids. Hammer wants us to feel the joy, play, and wonderment that she so evidently feels when she decides which lights will wash her celluloid and which waters bathe her skin. This film, made in 1982, is our baptism, the sprinkling of libations for those of us who followed Barbara Hammer and her prolific and generous and fearless modes of avant-garde filmmaking into dark rooms to sit before flickering screens to see the world anew.
JESSICA BARDSLEY: “Waves are hands. They traverse bodies. They swim. They drown.“ Jessica Bardsley’s Oceanography, is a lyrical video, in which the attempt to resolve has more akin to the process of becoming – like a girl growing into her long legs, or a little boy waiting for his face to catch up to his two front teeth. The video does chart its course, but the navigator dreams of many alternate journeys. Bardsley is a taxonomist of wayward souls, human and animal- whether they be air-bird or sea-mammal. We are lead towards and away from the bottom of the ocean, its ever changing surface, and its most haunting and breath-taking inhabitants. Quite unexpectedly the digital edge of in-camera audio begins to splice a roving camera (searching for land?) into tranquil sunset studies and warbling horizon lines. The blend of found and self-generated footage is seamless and yet the brutality of the sound edits doggedly forces us out of a the romance of simulation. This is an investigation. This is a quest.
Oceanography grazes the barnacled flanks of my mother, The Great Blue. Bardsley has a great need to know and to understand. She uses found and manufactured footage to show us the things she has learned. There is a youthful ping in the frequency of her voice that I suspect will not dissipate with maturity. If anything, I reckon that this particular sonar inflection Bardsley uses to lead us through her hand-digitized abstractions, and her crystalline frames of actuality will become more acute as her curiosity and methods of inquiry expand.
Portia Cobb: Placing bottles and other shiny objects onto the limbs of trees is a tradition still practiced by the some descendants of Africans carried to North America as chattel.
Evil spirits are attracted to shiny objects.
They get trapped inside the bottles, and therefore cannot enter one’s home. On windy days, we can hear the spirits protest as the bottles whistle.
I sometimes dream that a bird comes to my window at night and burrows seeds into the underbrush of the hedges. These seeds grow into bottle trees by the light of the moon. Before I can wake to make sure the bottles have trapped the invading spirits, the bird returns- just as the sun rises- to smash the bottles and splinter the tree into twigs for her nest. No evil spirits have made it into my house.
In a foggy post-dream state, I have determined with certainty that the bird keeps watch over the spirits by binding them into her nest.
Thankfully, Portia Cobb, currently in residency on the South Sea Islands off the Coast of South Carolina, has generously captured bottle trees and their keepers on video in her Bottle Tree Meditation. Maybe the birds can rest now.
Sanford Biggers wanted his trees back. With the methodical thoroughness of a botanist, Biggers, catalogs majestic trees in public spaces and links them to African American private citizens wearing the garb that defines their role in society. For some African-Americans, the specter of a grand ole oak tree can just as easily summon an impulse to climb and play as it can the collective memory of early twentieth century American terrorism (before we had clinics to bomb or mosques to wire-tap). His video, Cheshire, begins with a black man nesting in a tree (aman “hanging out as opposed to hanging from”). The man sits quietly among leaves and branches and surveys his world. Harmony and irony (the man wears a full suit after all) shroud the scene. A slow zoom out reveals the enduring reach of the tree’s branches. Then Biggers removes all ambiguity, regarding the reasons for his attention to majestic trees, and his challenge to black men of varying walks of life to climb them, by pairing these images with Imani Uzuri’s haunting vocal interpretation of “Strange Fruit”. This anti-lynching protest song was composed by Abel Meeropol, and made famous by Billie Holiday. And yet, the stillness of the camera, the greatness of the trees, combined with the individuality of each man charged with conquering his own tree carries a palpable tension. Should watching a black man climb a tree really be such a novelty? Such a relief? Therein lies Bigger’s dialectical tension between the sublime and the grotesque.
Anthony Goicolea: Searching for films and videos in UCSD’s roaming video library feels a bit like a gene-splicing the disparate activities of bin-diving and playing spin-the-bottle. I type “landscape” into the search engine and up pops a video by someone named Anthony Goicolea. I request it from the librarian. He brings it. I watch it. I crush on Goicolea. He’s Cuban. I find the artist’s website. I watch everything provided. Next, I find myself laboring over an email to this perfect stranger.
Anthony Goicolea’s video Tea Party, is part of a large body of work that captures young men in prep school blazers and tight haircuts practicing enigmatic class-coded rituals of betrayal and deceit which might lead to death or might lead to a baptism. The hierarchy among the boys is palpable. There is a dangerous fixation with the signs and codes of fashion, and I love that. The proceedings in his photographs, videos, and drawings seem pressed upon by institutional restraint and nostalgia. Goicolea’s videos telescope his viewers into interior narratives ribald with play on mythology, fairy tales and the fears that plague children’s dreams. Children are unsupervised. So they behave like treacherous and disillusioned adults. In Tea Party Goicolea’s masked figures crawl across the forest floor nibbling up a trail of Wonder bread slices. They seem at once completely out of place and wholly comforted by their environment. But ritual calls, and leads the boy far from the animals that (therefore) they are; and far from the humans the rituals assume them to be.
Jonathan Calm: With Shelter Of Last Resort, Re-Do, Jonathan Calm gives us a humble yet monumental reminder of the force with which our planet reminds us who is the boss of this world. New Orleans, August 2005: again black bodies were strewn about, but this time it was water rather than rope and fire that dispensed the horror.
What kind of container should be used to contain the container of our-selves? Originally Calm created this video to be viewed on a vintage seventies television set.
This object, the obsolete tubed box, increasingly wields the power of nostalgia over us. We want the things around even though they are useless. We stack them, plug them in and dream in their flickering blue light. TV sets do well, when a camp fire is unavailable to us.
At once a symbol of industrial innovation and domestic comfort, and suburban conformity, an old TV was Calm’s repository for his protest against the obscenity of our nations indifference to poverty. For the inaugural Carousel Microcinema program, Jonathan Calm generously produced an extended single channel version of Shelter of Last Resort.
Scott Stark: Corporeal topography. Organic homology. Retinal alchemy. Scott Stark’s film, Speechless, insists on the integrity, the unity, and the fearsome beauty of organic form. After watching this film I truly felt as if I had re-lived the process of coming to consciousness. My wet lungs howl for the dark warmth of amniotic fluids and the white noise of placenta pumps. But Stark cuts the umbilical with his teeth, turns on the lights, and embeds me in inescapable terrain; moreover, by the end of the thirteen minute odyssey, we’re no longer in need of assistance. We stand before these fearsomely radiant images with our own two feet.
A viewer may want to use pornography as a slide rule for interpreting this structural gem. But in fact, porn has not taken a good long look at a clitoris in a long time. When the viewer looks to porn for a reference, she will find hairless defenseless creatures slathered in silicon lubricants crusted over from the heat of halogen lamps. Stark’s vulvic images are appropriated from 1976 ”Viewmaster reels, containing 28 stereoscopic photographs depicting variations of human clitorides** and accompanied a book written and researched by Thomas P. Lowry, M.D. and Thea Snyder Lowry, M.A, entitled The Clitoris. Stark wanted to know: when confronted with material like this at once profoundly intimate and yet wholly clinical, how does a man construct and direct his gaze?*
He begins with form and materials, but also with art history itself. In response to the found images, Stark turned his own stereoscopic camera rig towards a domain that was claimed by men long ago: the landscape. But he subjects his survey of landscapes to the same discipline expressed by the scientists documenting clitorises “within the range of normal.” Stark looks. Then sews together the two experiments, the clitoridean and the terrainian, into an escalating spasm of unity, shock, and awe. The reference to stitching flesh is an intended pun. We all stand before these films with our own culture-tinted set of binoculars. In this case, mine see across the Atlantic to women who are denied this image.
The containment of this power within their bodies has been identified as a threat to social cohesion and therefore must be removed. I feel that sense of hazard roil up in me as I watch Stark’s film. Here in the west, this violent fear of the feminine sex may not manifest itself as knife-in-hand. But manifest it has and does. We have equally insidious ways of alienating a woman from her own body. Perhaps Starks’ search for answers within this film can help us track a path back home. We begin the program cradled in Hammer’s nymphetic riparian adventures and reach a peak with Stark’s call to the wild- at the threshold of the beginning- all over again. And so the planet spins, there is water on the moon, and trees fall silently in our forests.
Dolissa Medina: “Don’t go back inside your house, ever, no matter what.” I see the hawk circling. Will I heed the warning or will I play with fire too? In the found-footage poem, Kindergarten Prometheus, Dolissa Medina swims through the red shift of our decaying abandoned past. She dives deep into its tides and surfaces with a net full of tasty morsels for us to cook over a campfire lit by a sulfur-tipped match.
Under the heat of Medina’s editorial scalpel, mundane nineteen-fifties melodrama grows back fresh daily for our consumption. We watch Medina’s resurrected images. Each archived shot is a neon sign post leading us into a collective unconscious. Medina slowly cracks each shot open to reveal the wisdom of innocence, the eternal allure of the warm flicker illuminating the damp cave, the retinal pleasure of decaying celluloid, and the eternal allure of myths burned into its emulsive skin.
As I watch this film, I can’t help but think that maybe it is Medina, herself, who traverses that long hallway toward us, and to deliver the flame. Using the celluloid detritus of our shared popular culture, Medina descends into the cave looking for the flame. Maybe it’s Medina, who through her rigorously empathic editing, must face the eagle each day and grow herself a new liver. It would not surprise me if were the cost of ecstatic filmmaking.
Laida Lertxundi: The first bold thing to happen is the full frame of white bed sheet bouncing desert sun onto our retinas. The bottom corner of the frame reveals a head and hand helping to suspend this blank canvas before the lens. A sympathetic viewer might instantly imagine what the filmmaker, Laida Lertxundi, had in mind when she constructed this shot. This blank space – levitated by several invisible, and one visible female hand – seems to beg for (con)text. Did the filmmaker imagine titles here? But then again, it is a beautiful emptiness, isn’t it? Is that what she thought once she got the 16mm work print back from the lab?
Footnotes to a House of Love is a film in which the framer constantly (re)frames the framed. One shot after another indicates the margins and the notations of time and space passing between people in this enigmatic desert-place. It’s difficult to track all of the figures. Their heads, their hands, their torsos, and mops of hair are as elusive as the desert winds that shuffle them across the frame. But the deliberately casual landscape lexicon operating in Lertxundi’s frame indicate that the house of love has room for more than just two.
Lertxundi is a filmmaker’s filmmaker. The spareness and certainty of each shot seek correspondence with those who love the world a little better when they see it through a viewfinder. Image and sound share subjecthood with landscape and figure. Light is structure. Edits are punctuation. Music rolls the film onto its core. Incidental sounds splice one image to another. A disciplined editor, it’s clear that Lertxundi is just giving us the best bits -the phrases that offer clarity without crutching on context – the footnotes. The call-and response between the analog radio and the bowed upright bass fills in the emptiness insisted upon by the desert. But it never quite closes the gaps between Lertxundi’s languid figures. The figures resist each other, and they resist our gaze. But be careful how you look, because they may just look back.
And then there is the synchronous sound that insistently destabilizes time and derails any misguided hopes of full-bodied narrative that one might have harbored. The snap of cassette tape, the crackle of vinyl and the retinal pop of emulsion tumbling in heat and sunlight converge in this film which thumbs its nose at Nostalgia with one hand and while summoning her into the shade with the other.
Mungo Thomson: There was a film I loved that my elementary school teachers played frequently. I believe it was called, “Eight Cow Woman.” (If anyone has seen this film, please let me know!) It would be wonderful to actually see it again to find out if my telling of the film in any way mirrors its actual plot. But I’ll spare you that. I only share this at all because in the act of recalling this film, I do not remember its soundtrack. I only remember the sound of the projector. The machine-rhythm of a little claw poking into the sprockets of celluloid and dragging it through a gate bathed in incandescent light – is an eternal (internal) soundtrack. Sort of like the crackle of an LP when the needle reaches the center and the platter keeps spinning. Perhaps, when we hear these sounds (those of us of a certain generation) it cues our minds to plow inwards.
materials really do matter. I suspect, that if Thomson had shot this film in delicious HD, we might have seen too much. Even clouded by the circles of confusion in the lens mounted to a 16mm camera body the falls are graphic and violent. What would happen if we could see the sap leaking, or the insects scatter? My fear is that Thomson’s wry wit would be over shadowed by my own acute shame. Because this film forces me to experience some kind of strange inverse equation in which the horror of watching those majestic trees die is lesser than or equal to the sublime beauty in witnessing their plummet.
Thesis: There is no such thing as silence.
Mungo Thomson took his camera to the forest where trees were falling and playfully denied us the pleasure of proof, that yes trees falling do make irrefutable sound. Instead, we listen to the testimony of his machines. Thomson’s machines tell us that when a tree falls, it takes our breath away. So how does sound and the lack of sound, or the substitution of one sound for another lead us so far inward that we actually come out the other side? And why is the erasure of sound that is provided by the projector a more effective sonic-space than the howl of the trees as they fall? I got no answers for that.