Projections at the 2015 New York Film Festival
by Federico Windhausen
As the annual sidebar of experimental film and video at the New York Film Festival, formerly titled “Views from the Avant-Garde” and now in its second year of being known as “Projections,” continues to transform itself in response to demands and trends within the institution of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the culture at large, many still presume that its programs offer either a distorted view of the current scene or an all-too-typical sampler of contemporary work. One critic came to “wonder whether the landscape of avant-garde film and video (what’s the difference now?) has evolved beyond my aesthetic preferences,” while another took to counting how many times his preferred format of photochemical film appeared, in contrast to the profusion of “digital pieces enamored of postmodern pretensions” (thirteen of the former and forty of the latter). Sidestepping both the dubious notion that choice of medium is determinative of aesthetic quality and the very broadly cast question of how an entire area of moving image (or “landscape”) might have “evolved,” I offer here three ways of considering Projections. All are based in my sense of the ways that viewers tend to regard the sidebar: as a showcase of films selected according to various (unspecified but hopefully interesting) criteria, as an ordering and grouping of those films into programs that shape the viewing experience, and as an opportunity to listen to filmmakers’ ideas in the setting of the festival screening.
First and most obviously, viewers extract from the film programs the work they find engaging—that is to say, they are capable of looking beyond the program as a whole in order to locate films and videos of personal interest. Some hope to revisit familiar filmmakers and types of films in order to track their development, and the presence of Gavin Smith (former co-programmer of Views) on the current programming team allows for the festival to demonstrate its continued support of the likes of Lewis Klahr, Vincent Grenier, and other practitioners associated with the poetic avant-garde. But Projections also offers the possibility of discovering new names and genres within experimentally oriented work, or of inserting traditions from other areas of moving image practice into the mix. The diversification of the sidebar is clearly a key objective for programmers Dennis Lim, whose tastes are most readily associated with art-house cinema, and Aily Nash, who bridges the arenas of experimental cinema and gallery-based artists’ moving image work. Second, each program constructs a web of relationships across its constituent films, sometimes quite coherently, sometimes more messily.
Given that Smith, Lim, and Nash work together but not always in unanimous agreement, the programs have tended to lack the auteurist imprint that made Views appear to be so strongly driven by former programmer Mark McElhatten’s aesthetic preferences. Nonetheless, Projections advances some consistent ideas about how a diverse body of films and videos should be programmed. Third, the three-day event of Projections is made considerably more substantial by discussions with filmmakers, held usually after each program (and now facilitated by funding from the Website MUBI, which goes toward filmmaker travel). The return to moderated question-and-answer sessions has the potential to open up each program to notions, questions, and declarations unarticulated in the films themselves, and it marks a welcome change from Views’ policy of concluding the mixed programs without such discussions (enacted in the aftermath of what were perceived to be confrontational reactions to McElhatten’s programming choices).
Among the new work from familiar names that seemed noteworthy to this viewer were films by Blake Williams, Charlotte Pryce, and Wojciech Bakowski. Williams’ Something Horizontal was most memorably dominated by a common image within experimental cinema, a darkened domestic interior into which sunlight passes and creates the silhouette of a window, a visual trope transformed in this film through editing and the anaglyph 3-D technique into a kinetic array of moving shapes possessed of varying degrees of three-dimensionality. Following after a well-known formulation of Maya Deren’s related to the verticality of poetry, Williams inserts intertitles in the style of silent cinema (and Un chien andalou) that mark time (“Later...”, “Earlier...”) and give the film a “horizontal” contrast to its “vertical” exploration of perceptual effects and audiovisual intensity. Working within a less accelerated tempo was Pryce, whose three-minute Prima Materia begins with a flash frame of an illustration of an eye and proceeds to create the impression of displaying filmically treated microscopic imagery. Moving from coiled and curving forms to liquid substances and finally to striking images of moving, illuminated flecks of an indeterminate nature, the film’s imagery gives the impression of having emerged out of both the petri dish and the developing tank, pitched as it is between the representation of possibly organic transmutations and the impact of photochemical ones.
In contrast, the filmic is far from the concerns of Bakowski, whose videos have tended to embrace the flat, low-resolution look of early computer graphics. His latest, Analysis of Emotions and Vexations, is thus a departure inasmuch as its visuals are comprised of his pencil drawings, here showing primitivist self-portraits and roughly sketched urban scenes; yet it shares with his earlier work a reliance on first-person narration which manages to be alternately literalist (“I’ve been staring at the things on the table”) and poetic (“The street has tired from recalling it”). Coming off as, in one statement, elusively laconic and posturing and, in the next, explicitly sentimental and melancholy, the apparently self-absorbed persona Bakowski constructs reveals himself to be responding to the increased urbanization of his environment, albeit by declaring his desire to expire in the face of its full realization. Other works of note from the usual suspects on the experimental film scene included Mike Stoltz’s evocative film of Florida ruins Half Human, Half Vapor, Ben Russell’s Soweto lark YOLO, and Michael Robinson’s gaga celebration of 1980s televisual spectacles Mad Ladders. Standing out among the newcomers to Projections was Riccardo Giacconi’s Entrelazado, an essay video shot in Cali, Colombia and exploring the theme of entangled events and interrelated lives. Its structure, which only begins to suggest conceptual linkages slowly in the course of its nearly forty-minute running time, continues a trend toward ambiguously connected parts about which I will have more to say below.
One program in particular merits mention not only for its content and structure but also for having been provocative enough to have dominated a number of discussions during and after Projections. Program 7 included, in order of appearance, Simon Fujiwara’s Hello, Beatrice Gibson’s F for Fibonacci, Louis Henderson’s Black Code/Code Noir, Peggy Ahwesh’s Lessons of War, Fern Silva’s Scales in the Spectrum of Space, and Ephraim Asili’s Many Thousands Gone; in part because the films are too complex to cover comprehensively in a short article, I will focus on the first three shorts. The first, Fujiwara’s Hello, is a video that juxtaposes two characters who may or may not be fictional: a young Mexican woman who sells the recyclables she finds in landfills but professes to be perfectly content and a digital animator from Germany who lacks arms and felt alienated by office-based work. As Fujiwara describes it, “The double interview is controlled and manipulated by a computer-generated severed hand that Maria describes as an object once discovered in the trash while working in the violent northern town of Mexicali. This CGI hand was in turn produced by Max who was born with no arms and sought refuge in computer imaging as a means to operate and manipulate a digital reality.” As a digital animation of a severed hand swipes and taps between screens showing Maria and Max in separate spaces, they speak of their attitudes toward their labor, and the reality of the trash site becomes ever more abstract as the video’s visual design references the pristine surfaces of digital advertising. Because both the characters and the issues that their dialogue is meant to raise are presented with a surfeit of irony and a highly calculated degree of “bad taste,” Fujiwara seems content to set up contrasting elements and play with tonal dissonances. Hardly an essay film, Hello nonetheless shares with Entrelazado and various other videos included in Projections a feature commonly found in recent moving-image work by conceptually inclined artists: through montage, seemingly disparate and distinct texts, spaces, events, and people are made ambiguously proximate to each other.
In contrast to Hello, which reveals no clarifying supplemental information in its concluding minutes, the next work in Program 7, Gibson’s F for Fibonacci, is more typically representative of this approach in that its end credit sequence details some of the major units of intertextual information incorporated into the work. Within this short that circled around the topic of abstractions and models of various sorts, key excerpts were derived from an article on noise from Journal of Finance and a chapter on music and numbers from a book of music projects for children. The accumulation of references in Gibson’s video raised for me the question of how such a heavily loaded work could successfully function within a long program of films and a festival in which it was going to be seen only once by each viewer. Whereas the central elements of Hello were discernible enough to be remembered after a single viewing, the densely layered (which is not to say profound) nature of F for Fibonacci might have been far better suited the venue of the Amphitheater, for which certain videos had been selected to be shown exclusively and repeatedly at regular intervals.
The strategies of intertextual citation and appropriation undergirding Gibson’s video appeared again, taken to a hyberbolic extreme, in the next and most contested video in the program, Louis Henderson’s Black Code/Code Noir. Beginning with a digital image of a darkened Earth, Henderson’s video displays as on-screen text the following uncredited quotation from a lecture by Michel Serres: “More beautiful than the day, peaceful by all means, the star-studded, pensive and soft night is a better model of knowledge than the sun-struck, cruel, exclusive, eye-hurting, ideologically prone and opinion-ridden light of day.” Following Serres’s lecture, which argues against the metaphoric uses of “enlightenment,” Black Code/Code Noir responds to the Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell killings in the United States by condemning the eighteenth century Enlightenment. Playing with the notion of two types of codes sharing a common core, it links laws about slavery in the Americas to contemporary technologies of surveillance and control, declaring in a later on-screen text, “The algorithm is the apparatus that organizes and activates the necropolitical logic.” This is hardly a nuanced or original thesis, to which Henderson’s video also adds the suggestion that the Haitian Revolution can serve as a model for breaking with Enlightenment thinking. Had Black Code/Code Noir begun with such premises and attempted to not only support but question them as well, it might have been more engagingly essayistic. But even as a one-dimensional tract, the work could have been redeemed by formal inventiveness; instead, it plays like an audiovisual bombardment designed to reiterate a facile historical narrative via superimpositions, split screens, Web page captures, recorded lectures, hip-hop clips, footage taken from police and civilian sources, and of course digital artifacts. That Henderson’s polemic was followed by far less bombastic, overstuffed films was particularly unfortunate for their creators: Ahwesh offered appropriated animations of what she called “little narratives” of the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, Silva created an urban ode from found footage, and Asili sought out visual affinities between the street life of two areas shaped by the African diaspora, Harlem and Salvador, Brazil.
In discussions with the programmers and audience after Black Code/Code Noir and his other film in Projections, All That Is Solid, Henderson made clear his position as a British national making work about the United States, Haiti, Ghana, and France. He presented Black Code/Code Noir as a “starting point for a conversation,” but expressed ambivalence regarding what he saw as the “flattening” effect of the short form and the convention of the mixed screening program at film festivals (contrasting it with a conversation “in space between people,” as in community activist events). Convincing or not, Henderson’s statements point to the value of allowing filmmakers a space, however limited, within programs of shorts to frame their own work in various ways and be exposed to direct feedback. While very few festivals have consistently and systematically incorporated such exchanges into their structure, at least at Projections a good amount of time is allotted to conversations about the films.
Two dominant tendencies within the sidebar this year made the discussion session seem especially important. One was the prominence of filmmakers who have consciously assumed the role of outsider in cultures foreign to their own, often raising issues related to the ethics of representation. Most prominently, Ben Rivers was asked to provide his views regarding the Moroccan characters in his feature The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (to which he replied, in a long Q&A session, that he was trying to “film them as humans,” despite their fictional roles as apparent villains). Another tendency even more conspicuously on display at Projections was the divide between the concepts and texts informing a given work and the semantic ambiguity and referential opaqueness of the finished film. As I have been suggesting, essayistic forms have become especially salient at this event, and this is partly due, I think, to their crossover appeal across the communities and institutions of art-house, artworld, and experimental cinemas. The heightened importance of conceptually knotty films and videos calls for not just the elaboration of guiding intentions but also the consideration of other contexts, including the larger artistic project to which a single work can be said to belong and the cultures and circumstances from which it emerged. This type of cinema offers a special challenge to the armchair mode of film criticism that writes up festival reviews based on press screenings and viewings of Vimeo links. Events such as Projections create programming frameworks and discursive platforms for individual films and videos that few writers have endeavored to understand and examine critically.
In applying the matrix of my own interests and reactions to these programs, I have left out enough to render this a highly skewed and incomplete account. But these remarks will hopefully have indicated the degree to which the kinds of contemporary films and videos screened at Projections construct for themselves, call forth, and are ascribed relevant contexts of meaning. They are as much a part of the “landscape” as the moving images themselves.
Federico Windhausen, a film scholar and curator based in Buenos Aires, is editing A Companion to Experimental Cinema for Wiley-Blackwell and will curate the Theme program for the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen in 2016.
For more information on the Projections program at the New York Film Festival, click here.
Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 1