Carousel Microcinema #04 Program Notes

According to wikipedia, the term microcinema was coined in 1991 on the west coast with the inauguration of the Total Mobile Home Microcinema. But  I am  certain that I heard the term thrown around earlier than that as an undergrad at San Francisco State University back in the late eighties. My memory places the term squarely into the mix of D.I.Y scenes in the San Francisco as well as the East Bay. The Bay Area economy was so bad in the late eighties, that a scrappy individual, or a group of young people,  could rent out a storefront on a major thoroughfare in the Mission or the Western Addition and turn it into an arts space, a performance space, or  whatever was wanted within fire code. The rent was covered with parties, performances, and the sale of  hand made goods like jewelry, clothing, used books, posters, and ‘zines. And I remember very well, attending “microcinemas” around ‘88-’89, and they were not

‘zines. And I remember very well, attending “microcinemas” around ‘88-’89, and they were not affiliated with said wiki entry’s claims at all. (Not to mention Crag Baldwin’s long standing Other Cinema / ATA. ) These DIY initiatives,  usually lasting no more than six months before the storefront windows were again newspapered over, were always sites for risky creative production, intense interpersonal connectivity, and rigorous (challenging) cultural negotiations; and they deeply  informed my desire to begin the Carousel Microcinema in my new home San Diego. Though this sleepy suburban city is only two and a half hours away from Los Angeles, when it comes to contemporary art culture, particularly time-based and electronic media culture, it can sometimes feel as far away as Brooklyn. As a way of viewing new work that I hungrily read about on-line, I decided to approach artists, some of whom were old friends and some total strangers, and request a viewing copy of the work in exchange for a one-night only regional public screening that I would heartily publicize to the local arts and university communities (which, because I am based in an “off-market” region, in no way threatens the artist’ ability to screen or premiere in Los Angeles of San Francisco).    Additionally, one of the great frustrations of artists who use media as more than a recording device, but as a malleable material, as a formal and structural object, is the dearth of cogent, insightful, and informed writers willing to engage in the historical and theoretical analysis of this work; moreover,  the narrow scope of the few cinema journals which remain in print is astounding. So I write about each audio, film, video, performance piece, or electronic media that I show from the perspective of a filmmaker and a colleague, hoping to draw connections between historical and contemporary works and between different formal strategies.  It seemed like setting up  a Carousel Microcinema here in Chicago could be a good way of extending myself to this community and creating links and dialog between the practices of artists on the west coast and artists in the mid-west.
For Carousel Microcinema 04, Chicago, I am so please to offer this community, hosted by threewalls Gallery, three varied and wonderful works.

"Portrait. Wura-Natasha Ogunji.

Wura-Natasha Ogunji lives and works in Austin Texas. In addition to doing her drawing, paintings, books, theatrical performances and fiber-works, she has been producing performance videos which draw from the traditional single camera/single angle conceptual tropes of late twentieth century performance video art.

However, Ogunji complicates the form by using this structure to conjure new spaces and possibilities in spirit and matter.  The Epic Crossing of an Ife Head (2009) interrupts the  traditional real-time durational characteristics which ar so ubiquitous (and predictable) in contemporary performance work in favor of a wicked transmutation of time and space. As the Ife Head is just about to pounce on us, splice-time pulls it away, resetting the creature (Ogunji) to its original position,  but the video continues to suspend us in a mildly uncomfortable anticipation of its immanent return.  Earlier in her video practice, Ogunji ruminated on her blog:

“These performances are drawings, like Haitian Vodoun vévé—lines of cornmeal that mark the floor of ceremony. Vévé are how spirits enter the space; they are journey, possibility. What exactly is possible when body is our everything? How do we move through the world? What does our power look like?”

Her videos attempt to find out. The production of ritual and the active investigation of spirit in art is a long standing concern that comes in and out of fashion– but let’s be frank, it tends to make the status quo of contemporary art scene – the academic  and the institutional –  very uncomfortable. For what is modernism if not, in part, the clinical suppression of emotive product, the replacement of the earnest with ironical, the disdain for decoration, and the suspicion, even, of color?  Art-in-the-spirit, art structured by history, memory, and ritual,   makes one feel. And if one is feeling, how can one trust one’s thought’s what happens when the way I feel, makes the Deleuze I’ve read seem trite? Do I toss Deleuze, or dismiss the spirit? Despite ample pressure, many artists refuse to make that choice. Ogunji is part of yet another generation of African-American artists who never question the fundamental affinities between creative and spiritual production. If, in the year 2010, Barbara McCullough were a young UCLA film student looking for artists to help her better understand her own interest in the application of ritual in her art practice, she would definitely seek out a conversation with Wura-Natasha Ogunji.

Barbara McCullough’s experimental documentary, Shopping Bag Spirits and Freeway Fetishes: Reflections on Ritual Space (1979 – 81), explores the different strategies of creative production applied by the artists who surrounded the young filmmaker in Los Angeles, in the late seventies. McCullough seeks out poets, musicians, sculptors, and performance artists  who overtly or covertly employ the tactics of  ritual to structure the production and generate meaning in their work. Absolutely precious video footage tracks  David Hammons–

Impossible to resist including a still from this seminal work, even though it is David Hammons in New York, not LA!

–(before he left for New York) as he re-arranges the rubble in an abandoned lot into a totemic structure, a container of meaning that waited to be encountered by passers-by.

Photographic documentation of Senga Nengudi’s freeway performance  are electronically stitched together while Nengudi talks about her use of materials and the transformative powers of public performance. Senga Nengudi is one of the more egregiously neglected contemporary artists to emerge from the seventies. Her performances, her relational aesthetic tactics, her use of common materials are now, in the year 2010,  ubiquitous tactics within the halls of our (overly) professionalized art institutions.  She was decades ahead of her time.  The images that McCullough claims as the basis for  Nengudi’s sequence in this documentary feel as fresh and smart today as they must have felt freakish, frightening, and really fun, back in the late seventies. I look forward to hearing Kerry James Marshall’s (the evening’s conversation moderator)  observations on this scene of black art-hipsters and the ways that it might relate to similar conflagrations in Chicago.  The observational footage in which McCullough  and her camera sit beside Nengudi as she transforms herself from round-the-way brown girl into a gorgeously fearsome apparition demonstrates a kind of training that UCLA filmmakers of a particular era enjoyed.  McCullough approaches her subjects sideways –  unobtrusively – and sits in the circle (or at the vanity) beside them, rather than placing herself/camera between them and the world and trapping their (talking)head into the box of the televisual. Again, I think about the Relational Filmmaking Manifesto recently penned by Rochester-based filmmaker Julie Perini and am stricken by the possibility that this manifesto is not so much the expression of a new way of making films but the reinforcement of notions of social justice and equality as can be expressed through the form and structure of mindful (not necessarily political) film/videomakers.  Most touching however is McCullough’s candid discussion with Betye Saar about her desire to understand the application of ritual in her own work.

Betye Saar in a still from McCullough's video projected into Roberts & Tilton (LA) Gallery space with installation by McCullough.

The structure of this interview is like no other in the piece. It is staged, formal and completely in keeping with the news/talk formatting of three-camera television studio work. No doubt there were a myriad of circumstances that helped the conversation between McCullough and Saar take a form that seems to betray the loose tactful approach that the camerawork exhibits in the rest of the film. It certainly makes me think of Ms. Saar’s stature in the art world then and now – and the politics or representing success. Nonetheless, the conversation between Saar and McCullough is generous and sweet. It’s clear that Saar had already thought a great deal about the topic of ritual. Her thoughts about ritual are as potent and instructive  for young artists today as they must have been for McCullough herself.
Billy Jackson’s 1991 16mm film, Didn’t We Ramble On: The Black Marching Band is a piece of great significance to me personally in that it very much validated my instincts regarding the project I am currently producing in Chicago; but it also provided me with a deeper respect and reverence for the tradition and significance of marching bands in African-American culture.  Jackson’s film, with the help of Dizzy Gillespie and ten years of research by  Dr. Carl Atkins,  links our contemporary understanding of the processional with  centuries old practices of  Yoruban secret societies on the west coast of Africa. The film begins with the inter-cutting of the famous Florida A&M marching band’s grand master prancing across the football field, Yoruban drummers, and the tidal wave of swagger that is a  New Orleans second line band.

Recent photo of Florida A&M marching band member showing us our whatfors.

Michel Jordan in New Orleans second line dance crew

Not much has changed...for 700 years!

We are briskly carried through the transatlantic journey of the African processional, all the while reinforcing our comprehension of just how amazing it is that this ritual survived the journey at all.  Jackson celebrates the versatility and universality of the ritual as well as the resilience and adaptability of the people who brought it to the western world.

FA&MU oh yes!

This documentary is my talisman. As I produce the Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band flash mobs here in Chicago, this little gem, a tactful intelligent investigation into a little known piece of history, (rather rare these days for its lack of sensationalism and quest for cheap tricks) assures me that we are all on the right track with this project. Thank you, Mr. Jackson. Thank you, Wura-Natasha Ogunji. And thank you, Barbara McCullough, for making the work, sharing the work, and giving us a reason to gather together , in a dark room, on a summer warm night.

~Cauleen Smith July 29, 2010


About cauleen

Cauleen Smith is a native Californian who has had the privilege of living in Austin, Texas, Boston, Massachusetts, Emeryville, and San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles in California. She finds herself now happily settled in Chicago, IL where she makes stuff with an emphasis on the moving image, sound, and outer space.
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