By José Sarmiento-Hinojosa
One of the most remarkable programs at the latest (S8) Mostra de Cinema Periférico at Galicia, dealt with chosen works by experimental filmmaker Bill Brand, which has been challenging the notions of perception and montage in cinema for years. A guest in this years’ festival as well, Bill talked to us about his program at (S8), the philosophy behind his work, his techniques, the importance of the spoken word in the image and the exercise of seeing. Here’s the conversation that took place.
Desistfilm: This “permutation” of the image, or your technique of inserting images in the interstices of the filmic space (kinetic fields, as you call them, where two images coexist in the same environment): how does it serve a particular purpose, for example, in two films as different as “Huevos a la Mexicana”, “Coalfields” or “Tracy’s family folk festival”?
Bill Brand: There are several threads to this technique. In the early 1970’s I made films that derived from the material and mechanisms of film. I was a student of Paul Sharits and collaborated with him to create his first installation (Locational) work, Sound Strip / Film Strip (1972). My films Moment (1972) and Demolition of a Wall (1973) explored time and motion where the frame is the limiting dimension. Both films play with the directionality of the moving image in time and space, complicating notions of forward, backward, left and right. Demolition of a Wall presents all 720 permutations of six frames from the Lumiere film of the same title. In this period of my work I started thinking about grain as a limiting factor of the image. I was inspired watching Robert Huot’s 1968 film Spray where he painted clear leader with spray paint to produce a swarm of grain-like patterns on the screen. I thought, “what if each grain, instead of being a just a unit of an image, could be a frame for the image as well. My first film exploring this idea was Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune (1972). Here the “grain/frame” is a grid of dots from an animated ben-day pattern and the photographic image is of a cat in positive and negative. I built a proto-optical printer to composite the films. I added freeze frames and colorized the b&w footage with filters so that the space, time and motion between the positive and negative images are in tension, structured (I imagined) like harmonic rhythm in baroque music. But the dots don’t swirl randomly like grains or the paint drops in Huot’s film, so after making Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune I looked for ways to accomplish this.
Of course, I had many ideas that motivated this search. It wasn’t just a visual technique. For instance, with Zip-Tone-Cat-Tune I was trying to create composition in time analogous to music. With later films I was trying to create other kinds of layered counterpoint. But throughout, I was making images about thresholds, boundaries of perception and apprehension. With each film, the particular purpose, as you’ve asked, shifted or accumulated new dimensions. So, with Works in the Field, I was taking apart the foundations of Renaissance perspective and exploring its relationship to conventional cinematic language – looking for what gives the picture its authority as document (truth) and what is it about the photographic-cinematic composition that carries an ephemeral emotional truth. Or at least, that’s what I thought I was doing. All this, I believed, had a political dimension. I wasn’t the only one during that period who thought my work was a critique of how cinema functions as social control. I don’t think my ideas were particularly original or even very coherent. But the visual ideas were more so and perhaps this is what drove me to continue working in this direction. So with each film, I pushed the visual ideas and they served different purposes with each step. Split Decision takes apart narrative and conventional story telling tropes. Chuck’s Will’s Widow is more about personal expression and lyricism. Tracy’s Family Folk Festival and Coalfields puts documentary and explicit social-political content through the matrix of my visual ideas.
I thought I had come to the end of these visual ideas with Coalfields, but they returned in video in Suite and more recently in digital works including Huevos a la Mexicana where I apply ideas from all these past works in ways that are less conscious and more playful. But I am aware that it all has something to do with mark making and gesture, especially in relation to the drawing and painting that has become a more prominent feature of my studio work.
Desistfilm: The importance of the spoken word, the poetry, is fundamental in a film like “Coalfields”, especially since it serves a different panorama for the abstraction of the images in the screen. “Coalfields” is a documentary, but it is also a visual poem, a number of visual possibilities, a testimony. How did you articulate all of these languages into a single film?
Bill Brand: This was the biggest challenge editing Coalfields. The fragmentation of the picture with mattes and optical printing in all my films functions in part, as a carrier for various kinds of multi-valences. In Coalfields, as I had for Works in the Field, I created each segment in a cycle of editing, drawing, animating, optical printing and then I edited the results of the composited images. So there was a risk that I was simply accumulating visual exercises. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to deal somehow with the theme of the politics of labor in relation to landscape, the artist in relation to politics and once Fred Carter became a subject, also the body, disease and race in relation to all of it. So I asked poet Kimiko Hahn to travel with me to investigate Fred Carter’s story and to create a secondary character that stands in as the artist whose personal life experience intertwines with the film’s themes including the landscape. As I edited the film, it was a challenge to draw the threads together and not have each theme stay in its own container. Earl Howard’s music and audio design contributes a lot to the final weaving. Through the many years Earl and I have been friends, we’ve shared a lot of ideas about the granular structure of sound and image. So the music is doing a lot more than simply smoothing the ground under potentially disconnected themes.
Desistfilm: “Susie’s Ghost” is a melancholic journey, the phantasmagoria reflected in the absence, in the impossibility of seeing something which is supposed to happen or appear in screen. It’s both a human and a territorial tale. What drove you to make such a particular film like this?
Bill Brand: My previous two films Skinside Out and Swan’s Island were collaborations with my wife, Katy Martin, a mixed media and performance artist who paints on her own body and produces inkjet prints and films of her actions. I had been shooting photographs under her direction for this work until she started using a digital camera and could shoot herself. During the same period I was making Suite, a series of five videos where I used my own body as a way to deal with family history and genetic disease and where sometimes Katy filmed me under my direction. After completing Suite Katy and I made Skinside Out and Swan’s Island together to see what would happen if we deliberately collaborated as co-directors.
After completing these two films with Katy I wanted to keep exploring performance and landscape independent from Katy’s work so I began sketching ideas with former student Ruthie Marantz. Ruthie had grown up in my neighborhood. Her mother was my daughter’s elementary school principal during the same period I was Ruthie’s college professor. So we shared a connection to the place although from the perspective of two different generations. Tribeca and Soho, which had gone from an abandoned manufacturing district to an enclave of struggling artists, was now in its last stages of disappearing into a fully gentrified neighborhood for the ultra wealthy. Ruthie and I each, for our own reasons, were experiencing feelings of loss in relation to the place. Without even talking about it, this became evident in the improvisational video sketches we made. Eventually I asked her to improvise performances in the neighborhood landscape while I shot out-of-date 16mm film I had accumulated in my refrigerator. I was beginning to shoot HD digital but didn’t yet feel I understood the images it created. So in shooting up my remaining film-stock I was paying a melancholic tribute to a passing medium in the passing landscape during a time of other personal loss including the passing of my oldest sister Susan. Ruthie was dealing with her own passages and these entered the film through the fluid characters she created for the camera.
This was also the period when I started making drawings of my family who were now growing up and leaving home. Here my sense of loss found expression with direct marks by hand on paper. Many of my films are landscapes where the gesture of hand and eye through the camera carry an ephemeral emotion. With Susie’s Ghost I tried to include a figure in the picture where my framing of the landscape foregrounds as the primary carrier of emotion instead of merely receding as background for the figurative character. This ambition was harmonious with the themes of loss and passage feeding into the work and contributes to what you are calling its phantasmagoric absence. MoMA curator Josh Siegel called the film runic. By foregrounding the gestural framing of the camera and the graphic qualities of the landscape, the figure slips into an unstable netherworld, neither here nor gone.
When I make a film or any other artwork, I don’t have something I’m trying to say. Instead it’s through making the work that I discover what the work says. Its an unconscious process that involves deliberate actions but rarely deliberate meanings.
Desistfilm: You’ve tried both working the image in computer generated fields, digitally, and by hand, to recreate techniques, I’d dare to say, that look to serve a similar purpose. How are this methods different from each other in the sense of how do you use them in your images?
Bill Brand: I first used computers in the early 1970s to generate analog film materials and more recently used digital tools to return to some of the visual ideas I invented with analog film. The main difference for me working mostly with digital tools is the absence of the physical materials and the generative resistance they provide. I think a viewer feels the physical dimension of a film even if projected digitally and it certainly plays a role in my creative process. With recent works such as Huevos a la Mexicana I used ink on paper and physical objects to generate mattes for compositing with the hope that it would bring into the work some of this physical dimension. I’ve still got more to do in this direction before I’m satisfied.
Desistfilm: “Skinside out” is such a beautiful exercise in seeing. What do you believe lies beneath these bodies which are now canvases for the plastic image and how do they relate to your images of the city?
Bill Brand: Thank you for your appreciation. Skinside Out grows out of Katy Martin’s mixed media and performance work where she literally becomes both canvas and painter with my role as photographer secondary within it. The explicit collaboration of Skinside Out gave us a chance to foreground both our acts of looking through the camera where we’re each looking at the other’s body so the film takes on personal overtones about our life together. The painting is purposely evocative of landscape and in the act of looking our bodies continuously merge, disappear and reemerge with the space alternating between flat and three dimensions. In Katy’s act of making her own body the canvas for painting – and here, mine as well – she simultaneously makes herself visible and invisible. She becomes uniquely expressive as an artist and universal as a body. Our relationship to these images is both intimate and impersonal. By alternating the painting with the river barge landscape we added to the dimension of public and private and brought into the film another way to speak about what is seen on the surface and what is inside unseen. The sound track also contributes to these themes.
Desistfilm: What were you looking to capture in a film such as “Huevos a la Mexicana”, I know it was part of a workshop, but in this perpetual honeycomb of images you seem to have captured the essence of a particular Mexican territory. Was this your intention?
Bill Brand: On the final day of the “Do-it-Yourself Independent Analog Film Laboratory Encounter -“HAZLO TU MISMO,” in Mexico City, the organizers planned a day in Xochimilco, the hometown of organizer Tzutzu Matzin. Xochimilco is a borough of Mexico City on the site of a pre-hispanic town that has retained its historic character and independence. Xochimilco contains a large system of canals and floating gardens that is a local tourist attraction. Participants in the HAZLO TU MISMO gathering were invited to bring film cameras and were offered film-stock and somewhat surrealist treasure hunting instructions. Boats were hired to carry us on the canals to a garden of an ecological experiment for a final picnic. It was all very casual and celebratory. Instead of shooting film – I didn’t bring my Bolex – I shot with my little point & shoot digital camera, images of the others shooting 16mm and Super 8 film. I recognized at the time that the activity was similar to the films I’d made over the previous 10 years involving improvisatory performance and landscape in New York, Shanghai and Montevideo, Uruguay. So when I returned home I applied some of my familiar visual ideas and tried to stay in the spirit of the event – casual, congenial and playfully exploratory. Perhaps it does capture an essence of Xochimilco as well as a portrait of the “Encounter.” But as with any of my works that use this technique of graphic fragmentation, there is no single purpose, intention or meaning to the technique but instead I am simply following a playful urge with the tools and habits at hand.