A CONVERSATION WITH PETER TSCHERKASSKY AND EVE HELLER

This entry was posted on August 1st, 2017

Peter Tscherkassky & Eve Heller Photo: Marice Castañeda

By Mónica Delgado, José Sarmiento Hinojosa, Ivonne Sheen

In the framework of their last masterclass in Lima, in the context of Al Este de Lima Film Festival, some of us Desistfilmers had a chance to enjoy lunch and a nice conversation with Austrian film maverick Peter Tscherkassky and American avant-garde filmmaker Eve Heller, one of the most talented couples in the experimental film world working today. In a relaxed friendly meeting, we talked about their work, their ideas on cinema and other things regarding the current status of the film universe.

Desistfilm: I’m not sure many people are aware of this, Peter, but in your film Aderlass (Bloodletting), you record a performance by Armin Schmickl Sebastiano, an Actionist. Were you associated in any way with the Vienna Actionists? 

Peter Tscherkassky: Not really. I grew up in the provinces of Lower Austria, in a town called Mistelbach, which is close to where Hermann Nitsch has a castle – but Nitsch belonged to a different generation than we did. I just happened to be living in a province near these people, so the Actionists were very attractive for me and us. My first film which got into regular distribution was Aderlass. At that time, we were a group of friends and about to become artists. We were somehow influenced by Actionism, but we were by no means part of it.

Desistfilm: We’re telling you this, because in your first works, we see a shared spirit with filmmakers like Martin Arnold, or Kurt Kren, who were doing similar things in different moments.

Peter Tscherkassky: Aderlass was made in 1981, and I got to meet Kurt Kren seven years later. I don’t remember when I saw his films for the first time, but at that time I’d only seen the films of Peter Kubelka – and I didn’t yet know Kren or Kubelka personally. I was 23 years old, living in Berlin and I had no contact with the Actionists. But my performer Armin was a friend of Nitsch.

Desistfilm: And how did this transition happen? From your early period films to your second period, with Tabula Rasa and the CinemaScope Trilogy era (the darkroom films).

Peter Tscherkassky: Well, I did a lot of Super 8 filmmaking, working with re-filming and several other techniques I had developed. This was quite different from what was going on at the time in Berlin, where everybody was shooting Super 8. I came from an Austrian tradition and had a different knowledge of the avant-garde at that time compared to the so-called “Super 8 scene” in Berlin. Their films differed a lot from what I was doing, in terms of trying to invent something new. And with Tabula Rasa, a film I shot in 1987, I had reached a point where I thought, “Okay, this is the limit of what I can do with Super 8, that’s it”. I wanted to move on, and 16mm never really interested me but but 35mm did. It was a big jump, from the tiniest format to the biggest one. I could of course not afford a 35mm camera or film, so it was kind of natural to start working with found footage. Plus, as a kid at the age of 14, I had learned how to develop and process photos in the darkroom and I still had my own darkroom at my parents’ house – So all of the sudden I found myself in this situation where I could do something with found footage in the darkroom, by copying it. Manufraktur was the first film which used my contact printing technique – and twelve years later I came back to the darkroom to make a CinemaScope film. I had a kind of triptych in mind; I wanted to do something with the material from the outer space of the film frame, moving these elements into the picture, including perforation holes, the soundtrack, stuff like that.

Liebesfilm (Peter Tscherkassky)

Desistfilm: There’s a sort of fascination with these elements of Hollywood classical cinema: you take apart these moments, like in Liebesfilm (Love Film), and after that in genres like Spaghetti Western (Instructions for a Light or Sound Machine), or Horror (Outer Space). There’s a combination of what we call “intellectual art” but which also takes on the entertainment side, like these elements you take apart from Hollywood, which in itself is something rare to see in experimental film. There’s a sort of “reconfiguration” of these elements of entertainment that are used in your films. What is that attracted you so much in the films you used in your later phase?

Peter Tscherkassky: I’m not afraid of coming close to entertainment. I mean, I’m interested in films which have all these levels, from hopefully intellectual, a little bit brainy, up to offering some kind of very physically intense experience in the cinema. That’s part of what I love about cinema. Being in that darkened space, exposed to that kind of an experience which you can only get in the cinema and only get with film. It’s a kind of revival of my childhood experience: I loved cinema since I was a kid. I had this experience of somehow being overwhelmed as a child, especially by Westerns.  I grew up reading books by Karl May, who invented all sorts of Indian stories. Every person in German speaking regions knows Karl May and Winnetou, the chief of the Apache Indians, a completely fictional character. Films were made based on the stories of Karl May, and my childhood experience of cinema was deeply influenced by these films… Of course, I’m not trying to make make Winnetou films, or “Karl May films”, but something similar somehow, as impressive as those films used to be for me. Plus, adding this extra load of intellectual reflection on the medium, trying to make art, not just entertainment, but both at the same time, so to speak.

Eve Heller: Can I interrupt and ask a question? It seems like some of your earlier work did have a heavy theory connection. You shifted out of that, it seems, very mindfully, out of being hyper related to the direct influence of different thinkers such as Metz (you know, there was a phase in the eighties, or early nineties that was intricately informed by semiotics and different film theoreticians in the field of semiotics). You later shed that in the way that you started to have a direct consideration of other things.

Peter Tscherkassky: Yeah, at the time it was a kind of legitimation for the pictures themselves, to have a huge theoretical corpus behind them. So if someone would come up and say, “Oh, this is shit” you would’ve been able to say, “No, no, this isn’t shit”, because there is so much of Christian Metz to it or so much of Jacques Lacan, so much of – you name it – so that kind of was a defense of those films.

I mean, sitting in the darkroom and doing my thing, frame by frame by frame, totally quiet, with just a bit of red light… and then you sit in the cinema and whoosh! It explodes on the screen. This is something I deeply love. I did let go of the theory but still, a reflection on the medium itself is at the core of what I do. And it will be, always.

Desistfilm: Eve, We would say that your films offer a kind of meditation on different human situations. For example, watching Last Lost, and having this experience of being watched as humans from a different point of view (an animal), and seeing the experience of being these weird creatures of weird behavior… After, while we were watching your films, it sort of confirmed this poetic meditation stance of different aspects of mankind. What was the starting point, the initial point that moved you to try this sort of gaze on mankind, using experimental cinema as a medium?

Eve Heller: When I first began, I was very young and I was looking at the work coming out back in the day, which was the late 70’s My teachers were informed by structuralist notions, including people like Paul Sharits and Tony Conrad, “big daddies” (laughs) of a certain phase of avant-garde filmmaking. So initially, I was interested in films that opened up one’s way of thinking about cinema itself, and also in a sense that refracts how you look at films. You don’t just look at films like you’re buying them or being entertained by them, you actually become mindful of the whole process of viewing and the mechanics of the spectacle. I was interested in works that did this. As a young person, first starting out, we were seeing all kinds of work, including films by Stan Brakhage, that had a sort of poetic romantic quality. And some of these films I liked very much, but others… Eell, I was kind of hardcore as a young person. I was sometimes very impatient with things, and also very judgmental, very speedy and sort of “ah, this is shit”, or “oh, this is really moving”. At the same time, I was also very hard on myself, because I wanted to do something with film that somehow expanded consciousness of the medium or existence or whatever. I was philosophically inclined and interested in poetics and different forms of avant-garde artmaking. I had to find my own voice, and how do you do that? At the time, at the university, many people were doing films that looked like bad Stan Brakhage movies, including myself! They were imitating the style, shooting films through prisms and doing kind of visually interesting things but without having something that pulled the work together, a unique voice.

Self Examination-Remote Control (Eve Heller)

At the time, I was also interested in fine art – I’d been drawing and doing works on paper ever since I was a child. When I drew, I immediately knew what I was doing… It was in the moment of putting the pen down that a picture would unfold, and in the moment of this unfolding I would understand where to go with the pen, or the scratch, or the way that I was making the image. Now, film involved this apparatus that was a separate machine which was not familiar to me, so I was struggling with the machine, trying to make it my own tool. At the same time, I was struggling with my own identity as a young person in the world, not knowing who I am, why do I exist, if we all die what’s the point anyway, you know… What’s this messed up world that I’m in, the United States with its fucked-up politics… There were too many things going on in my mind. So, how do I make work that is actually very specifically mine, that says something related to my predicaments and concerns? And that’s when I made the first film I officially put out into the world. But only at the end of a longer period of study, culminating in a year at the State University of New York in Buffalo, at the Department of Media Studies. I made this film called Self-Examination Remote Control, which is a Super 8 self-portrait, turning the camera on myself and using a remote control… I was practicing using the camera, changing the depth of field, lights, etc. It was an experimental film in the literal sense, because I really was experimenting – I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. Then I put black film between the images that was striped with a magnetic soundtrack. ­I wanted to contrast film with image/no image. So, there were these black segments throwing you back into the darkness – blocking the light. In those phases I free- associated a soundtrack that I recorded directly onto the magnetic stripe using a microphone attached to the projector, in the process of watching the film. I played few different recordings I’d made in advance on a tape recorder as well – randomly pressing buttons to rewind and play portions of these tapes. The film turned out to be a kind of self-portrait that was at the same time was an exploration of the process and medium of film. Self-Examination was one of the first ways I got into filmmaking that resulted in a relatively coherent movie. We blew it up from Super 8 to 35 mm in 2008, when I had a retrospective in Vienna at the Austrian Film Museum.

My way of getting into film when I first made Self-Examination was very personal, and it was very fragile. It’s a really embarrassing film to me – or it was – I never showed it after its premiere.  Ever after I was basically working on my own and shooting film with the idea of someday making use of it (I’m using some of this material in a current work). I was busy with college studies in philosophy and German literature – which became my major. All the while I lived in New York and hung out with filmmaker friends, helping them make their movies, shooting film myself, freed from the pressure of having to come up with something I had to put out into the world: I just explored. I figured I needed more time being alive to find my voice. After graduating from college, I started to work in a state-subsidized film production facility to learn the tools of the trade and have access to equipment. I worked my way up from being a volunteer to eventually becoming a production manager. I had access to everything: I could use all these cameras for free, I could edit and make films. That’s when I shot my first 16 mm film called Astor Place, which was shot through a one-way mirror in New York City.  This film was in part inspired by the Lumiére Brothers, whose films had just been re-released and screened at the Public Theater on Astor Place. I was very interested in this whole thing about watching the street and having a sort of window onto the world that is, on the other hand, revealed as not being a true window – I shot through a window but the window looking out onto the people passing by is actually a mirror to them, so they actually are looking at themselves. They seem to be looking into the camera but then you become aware that they’re looking at themselves, and there’s a confusion about who’s watching whom. There’s that one moment where one guy looks down directly into the camera and you think he’s maybe discovered the camera.

The film questions the positioning and process of filmmaking itself, which necessarily offers a very particular framing of the world. The world is never objectively represented, it is only seen from a particular angle. I was very interested in these kinds of questions which were also contemporary concerns at the time, in regard to how we think we know the world, ethnographic studies and filmmaking, becoming conscious how we’re projecting ourselves onto the world we’re supposedly revealing in a scientific or objective way. But at the same time, I was really fascinated by the beauty of how the street choreographs itself: people passing, seeing each other, seeing themselves, all on their way, together and apart… So at the same time it’s a ballet of humanity, you know? I had this thing about Walt Whitman and about this sort of sense that we’re all these stories that are unfolding and moving with and by each other in the moment… I wanted to try and do something with this sense as well.

Astor Place and Self-Examination were two works that questioned the subject/object position of the filmmaker, and also the time-based nature of film. Time is a perpetual question I deal with in my work: subjective time, issues of duration and contemplation, different rhythms and poetic possibilities available through the medium, how you can create rhythmical worlds and communicate in and through these rhythms… I soon became interested in working with found footage. It offered a way of opening up new possibilities of language by breaking down found materials and creating new spaces, new worlds, new rhythms and new dimensions. Each individual found footage film offers different possibilities. Working with found footage was also liberating: It was no longer so directly about me and shooting in the world, but instead about finding fascinating material and exploring its potential.

Desistfilm: Peter, you made The Exquisite Corpus with material from erotic films and advertising of the 60’s and 70’s, and it feels that this “erotic” quality of your film was derived not only from the original images, but also from the rhythm you set to the editing of the film. Do you share this impression?

Peter Tscherkassky: I don’t think I was doing this in a conscious way, but now, since you ask me that question, I’m inclined to say “yes”! I mean, this film has a completely different pace than my other films, so to speak. It has something to do with touching something, petting something, and this of course has a slower tempo. You can see this in some of the repetitions, for example the sequence where the legs and thighs of a woman are shown being caressed… it has a floating quality, something very soft. It’s like the waves you see in the opening where the boat is floating, and the ocean – the film includes a floating, wave-like pace.

Outer Space (Peter Tscherkassky)

Desistfilm:  You know “The Entity”, this film that you chose to make Outer Space and Dream Work, here in Peru it was a big film. They used to showcase it in these old huge cinemas that we had here. It was sort of a “classic” here, a horror classic, which was kind of a weird B-movie. What was behind the decision of choosing this particular film to make your own films later?

Peter Tscherkassky: It’s a funny story. At that time, in my personal “pre-internet” era of the early nineties, my best friend, Martin Arnold, was teaching in the United States. And he owed me something because I had lent him twenty or thirty movie trailers to study. He was supposed to give them back to me. But when he moved into a new apartment, he forgot my trailers in the cellar of his old flat, they were all gone and lost forever. So, he owed me something. In the United States he had this film magazine called “Big Reel”, in which a dealer had placed an ad for film prints. I had already been thinking about this concept of doing something with CinemaScope. It was based on the idea that if you could project the full CinemaScope film strip, not just the image, but the full strip itself, you would see perforation holes and the soundtrack. And this would be seen on the edges of the screen, which means on that part of the screen which normally is only illuminated by CinemaScope films. So the outer space of the film strip would all of a sudden be seen. This conceptual idea inspired me to make a film using the filmic material as the main actor, represented mainly by the sound strip of the optical soundtrack, the perforation holes, and the celluloid itself.

So, Martin read all the films available in “Big Reel” to my telephone’s answering machine. I looked all the titles up to see which of them were shot in CinemaScope, and I read short descriptions of their content. The Entity was not just in CinemaScope, it was also very cheap – only 50 dollars – plus the description read: “An invisible ghost haunts and rapes a woman”. Well for 50 dollars I thought to myself, “Let’s give it a try!” I thought I could try to replace the ghost of the original with the film material itself. And when I saw the film I knew,”This is it, bingo!” It was exactly what I needed. I started working on Outer Space and immediately found many images which would not fit into Outer Space, but could make up another film, which then became Dream Work. So, that’s the story. It was pure chance, really. And great luck!

Desistfilm: Eve, We wanted to ask you about Crème 21. What was behind your thought process when you made it, because it’s such a particular film.

Eve Heller: Yeah (laughs). Do you think it is funny?

Desistfilm:  We thought that Ruby Skin was kind of funny, but We weren’t sure about the last one.

Eve Heller: I think both of them have very funny elements. In any case, they’re both based on educational movies, 16mm films with a soundtrack running alongside the image. I cut the films into fragments so the image becomes disconnected from the optical soundtrack, which is normally 26 frames ahead of the image to which it belongs.

Peter Tscherkassky: Do you know why that is? The image track has to move like a clock, one frame at a time, while the sound has to be a continuous flow, synchronized with the image…

Eve Heller: So on a normal 16 mm educational film print, the sound is married to the image, and this married print technically requires this 26-frame displacement. If you cut the film up into little fragments of anything under 26 frames, you divorce the sound from the image – you hear sounds that don’t belong to the image as intended. I became interested in cutting these elements up and creating a kind of concrete poetry, both visually and linguistically. Sometimes it’s just the sounds that are getting mashed up, a little bit reminiscent of musique concrète. My method was informed by William Burroughs who cut up newspaper articles and then randomly put them together in a new form. I was turned on to him by my brother. We had this small poetry group and experimented with these kinds of things. Among other things, we actually cut up texts and glued them together and then read the results aloud… We had fun and interesting times experimenting along these lines … I was trying to do something related, and with Creme 21 in particular, it’s about time: The main source was an educational movie called “Time, Measurement and Meaning”, about measuring time, the nature and physics of time, subjective time… all about this elusive thing we call “time”. So I thought that’s perfect, because in a way, a key relationship between space and time happens on the film strip itself. This became the game of Creme 21. It is also about the history of film: Creme 21 begins in silence, it’s black and white, and you think you’re travelling through outer space. But it gradually becomes clear that this material is about light and photons – In the beginning there was light – You see this growing orb like the big bang, but it’s also alluding to film itself which elementally requires light… Soon we see countdown leader indicating the approach of film’s sound era, and alluding to how sound is synched up with the image to create a married print. When the countdown leader reaches the two, sound joins picture and goes to color: So it’s now about black and white going to color, silence going to sound, and a poetic mash up about time and space, measurement and meaning. It is kind of an intricate film, especially the more you watch and listen to it …

Desistfilm: And what about the title?

Eve Heller: Creme 21 has a few reasons. Creme 21 was (and is) a skin care product made in Germany starting in the 1970s. The marketing campaign was based on the idea that it’s a moisturizing cream people of all ages can use, a cream for all ages: it’s like eternity, in the form of a product that keeps all ages young – a kind of human timelesness, you know? But the title is also a wink to my brother Stephen, a poet. He said that Ruby Skin was my first punk film and suggested I title it CREME 21 or The Adventures of Trudy Schlimmwasser. I preferred Ruby Skin, but when I made my next film using the same cut-up technique, I titled it Creme 21 in honor of Stephen. I also think the beginning is kind of creamy… It’s like you’re floating through space and the stars seamlessly become individual photons of light. Plus, I think that time is something you can’t grasp, you can’t hold on to… it’s like cream, very slippery.

Peter Tscherkassky: It’s definitely a mysterious title (laughs) Not self-explanatory.

Eve Heller: (laughs) No, it’s not.

Creme 21 (Eve Heller)

Desistfilm: Watching your films, they reminded us of this different kind of seeing which was related not only to ideas but also to an experience. What made you guys became curious about these other different ways of seeing? Do you have a particular experience that kick started you interests in experimental cinema?

Peter Tscherkassky: I had precisely such an experience. As I mentioned before I was in love with cinema since I was a kid, but I actually wanted to become a writer. I was sure that I was going to make art somehow, and to try to make a living with art… I mean, if that’s possible. You can always do art, but it’s difficult to make a living with art (laughs). I had absolutely no interest in joining the film industry, but the only thing I knew was narrative cinema. Artistic films, of course, like Federico Fellini or Ignmar Bergman or the Nouvelle Vague, but to make films like that seemed something out of my reach. And then, in 1977, I moved to Vienna and started to study communication science. After three or four months one of the professors mentioned “There’s an American film theoretician in town, his name is P. Adams Sitney, and he will be giving five lectures on cinema in the Austrian Film Museum”. Of course, I did not have the slightest idea who P. Adams Sitney was, and that he was the most famous historian and theoretician of the New American Cinema – and I didn’t know the Austrian Film Museum. But it was a big event about cinema, so I went. Sitney lectured five days in a row, every day with five to six hours of screenings, followed immediately afterwards by a two hour lecture, and, Wow! – I got it all! All the main works of the New American Cinema, by Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, Robert Breer, of course all the films of Peter Kubelka, classical avant-garde films like those by Fernand Legèr and René Clair, also films by Dreyer, Bresson, Vertov, huge masterpieces which I’d never seen before. And all of the sudden I realized that you could work with the medium just as a painter does, just like a writer does, you name it, and use it as a very personal means of artistic expression with a low budget. Then I knew “Okay, this is what I’m going to do”. Next thing, I moved to Berlin, bought a Super 8 camera, and started shooting.

Eve Heller: In my case I was a little bit younger. I was interested in alternative music, reading poets who were coming out of Buffalo at that time, and interested in mind-altering works of art that expanded my sense of meaning, the world, being with other human beings and so on. I was always a visually-inclined person. I come from a family of writers and even though I love poetry and writing, I had mainly been drawing ­–telling stories through drawing pictures and giving them to people. In any case, I think when I was about 17, maybe 16, I went to a screening with a good friend who was always dragging me to very interesting things, and he took me to see films, including Zero for Conduct by Jean Vigo. There I had a really intense “Aha” moment : I experienced how cinema could tell a story purely visually. Plus the film is anarchistic – about boys living in a boarding school, having this wild energy and breaking out of their very strict life… The touching and liberating energy of the boys and the visual way their story is conveyed is very beautiful. After I came out of the film I naively thought “THAT is what I want to do”, to make movies that communicate visually and emancipate the spirit: You come out of the cinema enlarged, you feel you’re now seeing life and other human beings in whole new ways. So before even having graduated from High School I instantly enrolled in a course called “Beginning Filmmaking” at the Department of Media Studies in Buffalo, which at the time was considered one of the great avant-garde film departments in the US. People like Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad, and Hollis Frampton were teaching there. And this is when I first saw films by people like Bruce Conner, Maya Deren, Dziga Vertov, ­all kinds of groundbreaking filmmakers all summer long. I was very young (17). I felt how these films that changed your way of seeing and understanding, had a huge degree of integrity and a unique quality that I couldn’t find in mainstream cinema. I, like Peter, was obsessed with movies since I was a tiny kid, but these were entirely new worlds. I soon started studying with people like Paul Sharits and those guys, and started growing and becoming more and more interested in finding a way into how to do something of my own with this form of art.

But I continue to be really interested in documentary, feature films, in T.V. series – in all different forms of cinema. It’s key that whoever’s doing it, whatever form they’re using, that they’re innovative in their way of creating what they’re creating. I think that a lot of the avant-garde filmmakers I know are open to all the other cinematic forms and genres, whereas very rarely do you find documentary filmmakers attending avant-garde film screenings, or feature filmmakers. You see this at film festivals. I love that the avant-garde is a film culture open to all the other forms ­­– in a way it has to be – to develop its own relevant and very unique voice(s). It is very magnetic as an artform – if the audience is willing to travel to new and unknown territories, which sometimes can be daunting or confusing at first.

Desistfilm: About your work with black and white: after watching your films, I also thought about the abstraction that black and white gives you as a viewer, and also thought about this easiness of the material in black and white which is more manageable in the darkroom. How is your relationship with the black and white image?

Eve Heller: I’m in love with black and white. Before I made films, I shot and developed black and white photos. My mother had given me her beautiful Leica. I was really interested in photographers like Robert Frank, and many different men and women whose photography I loved and closely studied. With black and white I’m especially able to concentrate on the integrity of the image and the beauty of light and the tonal spectrum: You don’t get distracted by different color fields, you have this very subtle option of tonal intensities. So that was one thing that really interested me as a black and white filmmaker – deep down I consider myself to be a black and white filmmaker.

The other thing is exactly what you said, this relationship between abstraction and figuration. I’m really interested in touching on this tension because I love the process of watching something and not understanding what it is and then gradually, there’s a revelation of a figure or the loss of a figure. That push/pull relationship fascinates me. It’s a very elemental part of cognition, and it’s revelatory. I really love this about working in black and white. There’s also this whole aspect about the negative and positive, that you can make negative images and positive images. This is essential to photochemical film and is something you can also manipulate and use as a tool. Behind the Soft Eclipse is hand processed and the film I’m making now is hand processed, both play on the negative/ positive alchemy of film. As you mentioned, the way you can manipulate the medium and use it when it’s black and white is also less complicated than with color processing. Another thing is that I prefer the distance from reality black and white provides. It’s very clear you’re not watching the world the way it really looks; you’re seeing a rendering or a representation. I work in ways that depend on taking a distance to verisimilitude inherent to the photographic process and the use of cameras.

Peter Tscherkassky: Just like Eve I also love black and white. Color footage is difficult to hand process in the darkroom. There is some orthochromatic color material available, or at least there was. But just the process of hand processing, it means five different baths which have to be kept at a certain temperature, around 36, 37 degrees Celsius, it’s simply too complicated. And I speak from experience – I hand processed Super 8 color films. But now I keep trying to keep my films as low tech as possible. So doing the films in black and white is about that, about low tech. (laughs)

Eve Heller: I have to laugh, because, even if Peter’s process is as low tech as possible, it’s more complicated than most productions (laughs). A perfect paradox.

Desistfilm: Peter, you mentioned once that cellphones were killing cinema. What do you mean with that?

Peter Tscherkassky: Well, cinema is based on a social contract. The social contract goes as follows: We agree to be at a certain time in a certain place, in space which is the cinema. Everybody sits in the same room which has no windows, the doors are closed and the lights are shut off. And for a certain amount of time, certain basic habits or functions are suspended: You don’t eat, you don’t talk, you don’t move around, you sit still, and all of us look in a certain direction which is at the screen. And it is only this social contract that makes the experience of cinema possible, focused and concentrated on what’s happening on the screen. And as soon as somebody sitting next to me, or in the next row in front of me, gets out his cellphone and turns it on, I see that light flashing up in the dark and it not only totally destroys my experience, it also provokes a very strong impulse to become a murderer (laughs). And that also distracts me heavily from the experience of cinema!

Desistfilm: Oh! Because we thought you were referring to the cellphone screen, because now in the streaming universe, everybody’s watching movies in different platforms…

Peter Tscherkassky: No, I’m referring to the totally unacceptable behavior of young people (and not so young) who are addicted to this fucking thing, the cell phone! It isn’t fun anymore to go to the cinema, because you have to be afraid that you’ll be sitting next to one of these assholes! At my urging, now before every single screening at Vienna’s Austrian Film Museum, a staff person steps up and says, “Please turn off your cellphones and especially the display light”. This is respectful – you have to teach and to train the audience.

Eve Heller & Peter Tscherkassky Photo: Marice Castañeda

Desistfilm: One of your exercises in the Masterclass dealt with this strip of torn out filmstrip. There you said that in a couple of years nobody would know what this thing is (the strip of film). Do you think that in a future, film will completely disappear?

Peter Tscherkassky: Well, you know that Hollywood is going back to shooting with analog film, and recently the Austrian government bought equipment to establish a film lab for the preservation of cinema – including to transfer important digital works to analog film. They want to do this because digital data becomes corrupted relatively quickly, while analog film lasts at least a hundred years – especially black and white films. Digital hardware keeps changing, the software alone changes every two years… But sad to say, the projection systems in cinemas have nearly all gone digital by now, and there’s no way of reversing that… So subsequent generations will have no idea what a film strip is… and the concept of the film tearing during projection or breaking apart is over.

Eve Heller: There recently was an announcement that Kodak was opening several new labs to make processing more accessible again, so hopefully it won’t completely die…

Desistfilm: So, have you guys thought about venturing in digital. There are now lots of new avant-garde filmmakers doing it, and new different characteristics that come with the digital image. Is that something that interests you at all?

Eve Heller: So far it does not interest me. I’m responding to the digital age by moving back into photography, into analog photography, while I wait for the lab Peter mentioned to open up in Vienna – an alternative lab we hope will be starting up in the fall or by early next year. For me to work with digital media in a meaningful way, I would have to understand the unique properties of the medium and explore alternative ways of thinking and seeing specific to these properties. So far, digital does not appeal to me along these lines. Other people are doing interesting work, but I don’t see my way into it yet. I would rather go deeper into drawing and photography than go digital. I’m not sure, maybe this will change, but it’s how I feel right now.

Peter Tscherkassky: Well in my case I’ve been thinking and also talking about going digital for 20 years now. Especially with my students, they always crack the last version of Final Cut Pro and give it to me, but I never use it. The last time I proclaimed it was when the filmmaker Virgil Widrich visited our house in the countryside where I have my darkroom, and we were standing in the darkroom and once again I said “Well, I’m thinking of going digital”. He looked at me and he looked around and he said “’When you go digital you have to cope with a million of other filmmakers. But what you’re doing here, nobody else does” (laughs). I think in that very moment my idea of going digital died, because I knew he was perfectly right. Besides, I love doing what I’m doing. The only thing is that with the computer you can work in the daylight. But still, sitting in the darkroom feels like being in a safe place, under a warm blanket, with just a little red light… it’s warm, and very cozy, so to speak, to work in the darkroom.

Eve Heller: I should say one last thing. I make my films using an optical printer, so I have the option of replacing my Bolex with a digital camera to re-photograph found footage. But the weird thing is that the result would be a digital image … The wonderful filmmaker and a dear friend Phil Solomon is now doing this and creating strong work. Sometimes I think I should try it. I would become a hybrid, using the digital medium to explore analog film. But to me it feels philosophically and aesthetically problematic, and kind of like cheating… (Laughs)

Peter Tscherkassky: One last thing. The same Virgil Widrich gave me, maybe involuntarily, the biggest compliment I ever got. In 1999 I created the trailer for Austria’s international film festival, the “Viennale”, but Virgil didn’t know this. He was sitting in a cinema to see a feature film, and before the film started the trailer advertising the Viennale was screened, and Virgil said: “I saw two frames on the screen and I knew: Tscherkassky”. Which means, and that is what I want to say: With my darkroom films I have found my own unique voice, and this is the main thing for an artist: You have to find your own voice, regardless which medium you’re working with. You have to find your voice. To give up that voice just to switch to digital wouldn’t make sense.

Eve Heller: This is similar to something Jorge Villacorta said to me yesterday. He came up to me before my screening and said, “I’m very glad I get to talk with you this evening about your work.” I figured he was being polite, and that the festival had given him a DVD to study my films so he would have some ideas about what to ask during our “Open Chat”. But in a taxi after our post-screening discussion, he said he had seen two or three of my films before – I was surprised because my films don’t get shown very often, especially in South America. But he explained he used to go to Rotterdam where had seen one of my films. “Years later I saw another film and I thought, ah, this film is by that same person…” He understood this particular voice out there, a poetic voice he recognized when he “heard” it again. When Jorge found out I was coming to Lima he said he had thought, “Ah, the film festival is changing. It’s starting to think about bringing more poetic, challenging avant-garde filmmakers, wonderful!”. And when I responded “Well, I’m not sure they’re changing, I think they invited me because Peter wanted me to come with him (laughs),” he started laughing and laughing. His laugh was contagious and the three of us laughed ourselves to tears. He was perfectly tickled by his misinterpretation of the situation. We shared in a kind of sublime laughter that was of course also a big compliment: Jorge Villacorta, who had discussed my work with greater insight than most anyone I’ve ever met was startled to think I’d been invited to Lima kind of by chance. I was amazed and delighted by his amazement.