By José Sarmiento Hinojosa
Canadian artist and filmmaker Rhayne Vermette moved out of academia to pursue her own artistic vision. Years later, we’re being witness of one of the most remarkable bodies of work in contemporary experimental cinema. Locked in the concept of the “ruin” and borrowing from contemporary art, architecture and her own process as a filmmaker, Vermette’s works are a unique blend of collage, animation, found footage and recorded images. What follows is a hour-and-a-half conversation with Desistfilm, about her work as a filmmaker, her place as a woman artist in Winnipeg, her influences and other topics.
Desistfilm: You’re a self-taught artist; however, your works are incredibly intricate pieces of cinema dealing with themes like architecture and memory, a confluence of animation collage and images which seem to want to recall passages of memory and their relation with space. Can you tell us about the process that made you decide becoming an artist and the motives behind your decision?
Rhayne Vermette: I studied fine arts for about two years, and I left it, I didn’t enjoy it, there were creepy male professors and all that kind of stuff. But at the time somebody told me the faculty or Architecture here in Manitoba, they were going through some kind of identity crisis, and was kind of working like a conceptual art school, so the logic was like “oh, I can go to that school and learn to make art and then come out and be an architect”. My first three years there were kind of my art instruction, and my introduction to architecture and space, and that’s were a lot of my film ideas come from – these three years which seeded a lifetime of ideas.
But then, each year in March, when the term was about over I needed to come up with a building and I had basically no idea how to make such a proposal. I was interested with things like psychology of space, corporeal built bodies, you know, a lot of metaphysical ideas… such as, for instance, being paranoid somewhere, does that have a consequence to the materiality of the space? So, as a means to try to articulate the things I was most interested in I then started making paper models and animating them. I found the act of animating and making a film was not as painstaking as trying to make architecture. Eventually, I had six months left in my master’s degree and I just took an indefinite leave of absence and I just never went back, I just wanted to make movies basically from that point on. I didn’t know what experimental film was, you know, I had no film experience, I was just really drawn to make really beautiful stills, taking a bunch of them and seeing what would happen if I put them all together. My incision into cinematic space isn’t by way of necessarily thinking in terms of story, or shot lists but rather thinking through materiality of 16mm film, and architectural drawing conventions – plans, elevations, and a heavy fascination on the section cut and its reference to the frame.
Desistfilm: As we were investigating your references for this interview, with came upon a quote from architect Carlo Mollino which reads “Everything is permissible as long as it is fantastic.” And this, in my mind related so much with your work. Can you tell us about him and the influence he had in your later films?
Rhayne Vermette: Yeah, Mollino, this figure was introduced to me, again, in my years at architecture school at a time when I was kind of really coming up against architectural conventions. Wondering and being curious about how those are made and how those can then imply a space’s becoming and inevitably arguing a lot with my studio professors and stuff like that. This particular professor told me “have you heard of Mollino, he’s a bastard much like yourself” so I was like “oh, this guy seems cool”. He was the first person whose spaces I felt really drawn to, I generally feel like I’m really actually naive to architectural beauty but this was the first time I was really drawn to this person and his work. So I kept turning to the many, layered facets of his life which really resonated with me and my own conceptual logic.
His vision of architecture really enlightened that which I was struggling with and continue to struggle with in terms of creation – ideas of architecturally stagnant propositions, and static buildings. I too was primarily interested in questions like … what if there was a way to create something which could transmogrify, most like a shell for its inhabitants. Through studying Mollino, I was able to project romanticized versions of my practice through him, and then DOMUS came out of that – reflecting of this 10-year relationship with this idealized architect who every day worked arduously to try and not only re-invent the wheel, but also challenge it. It was an act of attempting to make a film which sought to make sense of architectural desire and the convergence of cinematic space.
Everything has to be fantastic and I think, for the past four years I’ve been doing this open call for WNDX, which is a local film festival here in Winnipeg, and I think that, in part, DOMUS kind of came out of this grueling task of watching a thousand, two thousand films where you see a lot of work which merely buys into these experimental tropes and aesthetics… which brought into question the practice and state of experimental cinema. I consistently have a longing to be fascinated, to be surprised, to maybe see something presented in a way which has yet to be articulated.. so I use my practice as a means to suffice those very personal and unfulfilled needs and desires.
Desistfilm: The art community in Winnipeg seems to be quite interesting, with people like Guy Maddin making outstanding works over there. After watching your experimental documentary “Rob What”. I was wondering how you feel as an artist working in this town and how the relation is over there with your peers, especially since you seem so interested in recovering these documents from local artists, in the case of Rob Vilar, literally from a dumpster. What is the fascination with your art community?
Rhayne Vermette: I think when I first got into film I was definitely studying Guy Maddin’s work and was really using his work as kind of vehicle to understand space in cinema, especially when I was studying architecture. I first started making films as a member of the Winnipeg Film Group, where a male-centric legacy is proliferated. It’s all Guy Maddin, John Paiz, Deco Dawson, Matthew Rankin … you inevitably in a way look up to this filmmakers and Rob What was made when I was just emerging within this community of primarily male directors. And given the context of Rob Vilar, who’s acted in all of their films, my film then had to reflect on these directors and their works. But eventually as I moved from emerging to a career, the rose colored glasses were removed and some realities of being a woman trying to make movies were revealed.
Rob is a very good friend of mine. That film came out of trying to make a film which was very much in tune with who Rob is as a person and the work he’s done. It was a really difficult film to make because every director I admired at the time was weighing in on it, and I think in the film’s process I lost my own directorial voice somewhat.
As much as I can say, I appreciate the canon of Winnipeg filmmaking, my relationship to it is complicated. Much of who I am as a filmmaker came from watching these films – for instance, Ed Ackerman’s animated film Two Tah Too was truly a revelation in terms of my incision into animation. I recognize now that these films were a means for me to step into the act of filmmaking but then – I also get fed up. I wonder, who were the women making works clouded by the guy mafia of the Film Group, or even who could have made brilliant work but maybe didn’t because of the complex circumstances of the local world of filmmaking. It’s hard to make films and you are proud of your peers and all they accomplish – especially those who stick it out here in Winnipeg and make it work for them. But sexism, yes it is a thing, it is alive and it’s well – both considering what is happening here locally, and also looking at the international avant-garde scene.
I try and appreciate maybe being placed more on the fringes of the scene and the freedom it allows me – more often than not I’ve been kind of this lone wolf, making things by myself, discreetly. You eventually seek out and construct your own community… I just spent the last month in India with my good friend Divya Mehra, a contemporary artist, collaborating on a new film work which I am incredibly excited about… Heidi Phillips was one of my first mentors and I am consistently grateful for our friendship, wherein we help each other out, show each other works in progress. Same goes with my filmmaker friend Amanda Kindzierski, who’s become this sort of sister of mine in our mutual struggles to make work. The last time I was hanging out with Gwen Trutnau, another killer filmmaker here in Winnipeg, she just looked at me and said “Y’know, I think we just have to support each other” and this notion is exactly what a lot of us women practicing here in Winnipeg are currently at…
Desistfilm: Black Rectangle is wonderful homage to Kasimir Malevich, and I’d like to know if you could tell us about your process in this film. How you came about his work and what drove you to make this parallel confronting the passing of time and its consequences on painting material (the damage) while working on film.
Rhayne Vermette: Yeah, it was a truly experimental film where I had started working with film collage, cutting pieces of film and affixing them to clear leader. The initial impetus was quite simply focused on just how precise could I get with this process, and then how gruelling can I get with myself. For the first few months it was this process of cutting these tiny film bars and imagining into the rhythm of their animation – thoughts like “oh this might look very interesting if I start alternating the five bars of colors each frame” But then this work was quickly overtaken with the fact that I had made a palette of colored 16mm film (it’s also Desk Study N°1 on my vimeo) and was then a motivated act of just wanting to see this moving tableau of a film palette through photographing progress with a 35 still camera. This kind of behind the scenes of Black Rectangle, I was just really into doing that for several months. I had preset a particular length of clear leader film onto which to work with, so when I would collage it entirely, I would digitally transfer the film, and then go home and layer on top of it. I did this about 3 times. It was a very process-based work and at the end I just had all these transfers and I was trying to find some conceptual hinge onto which to edit or assemble all these digital transfers, or how to work with sound. I was thinking of color, and veils, and was just researching all these things when suddenly I came upon Kasimir through a book I had based on this concept of the “shadow within the shadow”. I saw Black Square and then that became the perfect emblem into which I could make sense of what I was doing.
It was this serendipitous kind of moment where my work led me to him. His work of Black Square and its material damaged facade evoked an intriguing delineation between static work and moving image, and how my collage process and Malevich’s piece (over time) tread that boundary. I’ve since realized a latent theme in my practice is visiting a lot of what men have done and then feminizing it, translating their gaze through myself and putting it out on film. Black Rectangle is a literal sort of cinematic liberation of a potential rigid manifestation.
Desistfilm: Can you tell us about the myth of Pygmalion and the relation between cinema and architecture in your remarkable film DOMUS?
Rhayne Vermette: The Pygmalion thing came from… I think a lot of work that I’ve made prior to DOMUS was a little angst-ridden, especially coming out of doing Les Châssis de Lourdes, which was kind of a crisis film in my personal and artistic practice. I was really wanting to switch gears and put love into something and be loving towards my process, towards what I was making. And then also, Pygmalion also came from Mollino, desire was wrought within the lens of the mirror within everything he made. This also reflects onto my own work, my practice is totally self-indulgent, it’s all about pleasing myself, this kind of eroticism behind the “what is this going to be”. When I undertake a film project, I don’t know… it never ends up being anything that I think it would be and I’ve been enjoying that process of self-discovery and titillating myself and moving things forwards. The Pygmalion thing was also turning to my own personal space and seeing where the desire lays within that often insipid space.
For over 10 years I’ve been recording my space, my desk and chronicling these intimate moments but obviously, what’s the drive for that? There must be some kind of drive. So Pygmalion was this way of arcing these drives and also my desire for Mollino,to put him on a pedestal, me kind of disrobing him. I thought it was a really nice metaphor to set the tone for making DOMUS, which celebrates this act of making and the space which surrounds it. Whenever I started working on it, I would put on romantic soul songs and just really tried to get into that loving mood. The process was entirely different than other works, it was awesome.
Domus was a term created by Mollino to describe an unattainable, ideal architecture which could engage both physical properties and abstract concepts – something which behaves and changes with every whim of those who inhabit it … now what if film could aspire to behave this way too? He believed that despite knowing one could never achieve Domus, one could strive for such a state through metaphor … in my film, I am attempting to build with cinema, reflecting on architecture and the act of conceiving of both cinema and architecture, and the intersections of these two as I reflect on my old architectural work and my trajectory as an animator/filmmaker. Through the film I try and represent architecture as a working idea, as an artificial construct, as a physical construct, and even as a working dream – I try to weave all of these together.
Desistfilm: Full of Fire seems to deal with tragedy, exile (something I’ve also seen in Tudor Village…) drama, tension and disaster. Your animation seems to want to reconstruct or salvage some elements of the lost structures amidst the fire. As the images fade away and become more abstract, we seem to be witness of a loss, or a faded memory, or the irruption of deconstruction. Can you tell us a bit more about this film?
Rhayne Vermette: I had made this film called Take my Word for this Craig Baldwin workshop at the Film Group, where I had used this image of this contemplative looking woman, and then the Film Group had this DIY optical printer with all these LEDs, so some of that firefighter footage came from attempting to use this device – and it failed. Film kept getting stuck in the machine, or it would get jammed so in the end we just took all these film scraps and then shoved them in a black bag and sent it off for processing, but very little came back with images. The film’s clouded colorful images are from that experiment… So these original images of the firefighters and the few optically printed images conjured many ideas surrounding the metaphor of a burning house. I had been sitting on this Three Degree’s soul song monologue for a while now, wanting to make a film from it – and the idea of home and female desire and the confluence of the both started to make sense through this monologue – and finally I had found a voice for the woman from the film Take My Word.
The way I work with a film is not with a Steenbeck, it is kind of this one on one relationship that I have with the physicality of film, understanding what a second LOOKS like, and then thinking about rhythm and music and all that stuff – how can I play within those seconds. Full of Fire is pretty much all hand-spliced through thinking of what sources of found footage I was playing with, and how to create a narrative tension through movements between the various images. The juxtapositions between this image of a woman who often looks off beyond the frame – and how to then with a cut, fill in that void to create various metaphorical ties – is she looking and longing for a firefighter? is she looking at a burning building? or is she just far from the scene, and the scene perhaps just evocative of her interior world? Obviously while working I was reflecting on my own personal narratives – ideas of being stricken by love, longing for home, longing for someone… I think these are recurrent themes, however its the composition, layering, and juxtaposition of images which open these themes up to much broader and more interesting conversations. It was important to me to have the image of a house in the film as a collage – to really impress upon viewers the idea of a metaphysical home – what can this be? While splicing I was also thinking about rhythmic chaos, igniting things, the pop and fizzle of something burning, so I would splice in random frames of vibrant colors, and so on… I only saw the film upon a first transfer, and surprisingly it all kind of worked out.
The soul monologue of the film was interspersed with an actual audio recording of the optical track of the film, and in the end the audio was cut to the transfer of the film. I mean, I made that film in less than 24 hours; it was just a fervent, angry splicing process.
Desistfilm: Your collages and photographs are an amazing testimony of your thought process as an artist, which is clearly reflected in your films as well. This process of deconstructing and reconstructing significants to form new discourses (the work of appropriation) is absolutely fascinating. Which motives or type of images specially interest you when boarding your art?
Rhayne Vermette: I’m really inspired by the decadent movement. I’ve forever been drawn to these ideas of ruins and even these post-modern acts of fragmentation. It’s as though it’s easier for me to look into splintered landscapes and use fragmentation as a way of conceive of work. When I was studying creative writing I always had a hard time looking at the full picture, this was almost 20 years ago when my professor at the time told me “write in fragments but make sure every shard is very sharp”, so the idea of fragmentation and ruins is just a way of… my logic just works better running through smaller parts. My favorite tool has always been an x-acto knife and this device is a great analogy to my means of working. I’m always thinking about taking the whole, tearing it apart, reflect upon those shards and how can I, through the lens of cinema represent something through a renewed figure. The act of collaging is integral to my practice, not only physically through manipulating film, but also through ideas of accumulating various and often contradicting ephemera, and orchestrating them all through the act of filmmaking. I see my practice as really being this cosmology of effects and influences – my role as filmmaker is to make sense of all of these.
Even with DOMUS, thinking about a narration, this was a work of many drafts and the first draft was kind of “Carlo Mollino was born in blah blah blah” you know? Then I turned to poetry and wrote poetic stanzas in order to deconstruct the documentary narrative and freshen it up and have this fragmented, non-linear text, which speaks to Mollino, but speaks to Mollino in an expressive sense. And also, rather than state “Mollino was really into aeronautic acrobatics”, how can I utter this obsession with the use the camera to represent that as a documentary facet rather than overtly implying it with my words? How can the film itself behave in tune with my character, and maybe become the character. The ruin is something that is very central and integral to everything I do. Even narrative structures in my mind are about something coming apart, it’s like my one trick, I guess, I don’t know (laughs).
Desistfilm: What are you working in now? What can we expect next from Rhayne Vermette?
Rhayne Vermette: I’m in pre-production for a feature-length narrative. I’ve been writing a script for about five years and I’m finally ready to move to camera this fall. It’s, again, a fragmented narrative but much of the conceptualization of the story was also attempting to outline something which can remain true to my own creative, experimental process. I really feel like DOMUS was closing a chapter, I’m still interested in experimentalism and stuff, but more interested in performance and action and experimentalism with actors, I’ve been doing a lot of acting myself and putting myself in front of the camera as a means to open that up – exploring the seam between character and actor, this is really intriguing to me now.
It’s an experimental narrative set upon a Métis settlement, I am Métis, my family comes from St. Norbert Manitoba and later settled around Richer and Ste. Anne. Ste. Anne is the title of this film.
The plan is to shoot for about nine months, through the seasons in a sort-of meditative pace, working with actors, improvisationally with some kind of scripted stuff, we’ll be building a settlement, a place for me to revisit frequently. I’m very much interested in this site as the main character, but a matriarchal lineage is what enlivens this place. So, we’ll see…