Crossroads Festival: Institutionalizing Risk

Now in its tenth year, the San Francisco festival of avant-garde cinema continues to provide a platform for under-exposed films and artists.
Michael Sicinski

A Room with a Coconut View

There’s always a pang of irony when noting the milestones accomplished by venerable avant-garde institutions. Some seem to hold fast to the idea that institutionality itself is the enemy of experimentation, and that a “true” avant-garde showcase or entity ought to burn hot, bright, and fast, and then fizzle out before it is invaded by the mundanes. This is the Jack Smith Theory of Art, and while I am certainly sympathetic, I am not a subscriber. I, alas, am much more of an Uncle Fishhook. I compile lists, hoard tapes and digital files, keep manila folders full of old program notes, and generally try to think both historically—noting what develops from the ongoing wreckage of the past—and geometrically—observing how forms and concepts can develop webs of connection through time and across culture and nation.

Institutions, or at least archives of one sort or another, are kind of necessary for keeping track of everything, because speaking from my own experience, the memory inevitably fails. And so I think it is ultimately for the good that screening venues, film festivals, publications, and other forms of public memory stick around for a while, establish their parameters, put down roots. While there is a certain charm in the pop-up gallery or impromptu screening or installation, there’s also a sense that those kinds of ventures are working within a temporal framework we might call “projected pastness.” That is to say, they are already looking ahead to their nonexistence, to an engagement that trades on the electricity of the unexpected but also instills a general mood of having already missed out. Without meaning to, this type of existence, in trying to defeat the deadening effects of institutionality, replicates the psychoanalytic structure of capitalist desire. You missed this; look ahead to the next.

These musings are occasioned by the tenth anniversary of San Francisco’s Crossroads Festival. An annual event that has so often zeroed in on overlooked and under-represented artists in film, video, and new media, Crossroads has always struck me as an unusual festival, in that it implicitly operates in opposition to some of the more institutional tendencies of certain other showcases for experimental film. Crossroads has provided a platform for younger artists, under-exposed international filmmakers, and artists whose works don’t quite fit the dominant aesthetic undercurrent of the moment.

In some cases, I would even argue that Crossroads, under the judicious artistic direction of Steve Polta, has featured artists who we might characterize as, to borrow a phrase, “not ready for prime time.” That is, I have discovered a number of filmmakers through Crossroads whose works I would call interesting failures, or works that have a number of impressive aspects but do not completely come together as coherent statements of intent. Sometimes these artists go on to make more “accomplished” films or videos. Sometimes they continue to generate muddled work that is nevertheless worth seeing and considering. And some of them vanish altogether. While this experience undoubtedly provides a learning curve for the makers in question, it provides one for me, the viewer, as well. It clarifies my intentions in viewing. What do I expect to see when I watch a film? What, after all, is coherence? 

These are the risks that have set Crossroads apart from other festivals, and that have made Polta’s programming such an intellectual wellspring for me. But how do you sustain that energy, that sense of not playing by the rules? There’s always that creeping dialectic, someone somewhere ready to shout out that “the new-new-new cinema is getting old!” But I think that, ten years on, Crossroads has proven quite nimble at institutionalizing its risk factors. As the festival has developed a loyal audience, it has continued to present unexpected finds and unknown quantities, while at the same time engaging in some of that lateral thinking I was talking about, drawing out webs of connection and lines of future history. 

Part of this is accomplished, of course, by trying to show the best films available at any given time. Though Crossroads is often iconoclastic, it isn’t willfully perverse, and the festival is in the good habit of showing strong films by people who are, by consensus, some of the best people working in the field right now.  This year’s edition is no exception, and so if you’re looking for a chance to either catch up with or revisit recent efforts by Kevin Jerome Everson (Polly One), Laura Huertas Millán (The Labyrinth), Janie Geiser (Valeria Street), Ana Vaz (Atomic Garden), Dan Browne (Lines of Force),Zachary Epcar (Life After Love), Stephen Broomer (Fountains of Paris), or Ross Meckfessel (The Air of the Earth in Your Lungs), Crossroads has you covered.

And as usual, the festival wisely devotes a significant portion of its screening time to performance-based work. Crossroads has this in common with Toronto’s Images Festival, exploring the intersections between live image production, gallery work, and the various forms of physical apparatus that tether a time-based event to the historical understanding of “film.” Brent Coughenour’s The Sick Sense 2, a pattern-based exercise in neo-structural layering and micro-tonalities, displays affinities with the work of Phill Niblock and Glenn Branca. In an utterly different vein, Scott Stark’s Love and the Epiphanists (Part 1) combines slide projection and live narration with a staccato, hiccuping collage of 35mm scenes from disaster movies, resulting in a sensory experience that is both an ironic commentary on Hollywood’s appetite for destruction and a neo-noir excavation of a possible future. 

But as I’ve said above, my own experience with Crossroads has been one of discoveries, and the tenth edition is no exception. Although I cannot give adequate attention to all the films that merit mention, I do want to focus on a few that seem to suggest larger trends and impulses, maybe existing both as themselves and as points along that larger web of meanings I’m always trying to discern, with variable success. 

No Land

Possibly the most interesting new filmmaker I found this year is San Francisco’s Emily Chao. In a way, her film No Land might seem almost old fashioned. It is a two-minute zoom in on an image pinned to a tree, with varying optical effects inflecting the image as it progresses toward its target. Of course it calls Michael Snow’s Wavelength to mind, but it does something else, which to me is more compelling. Chao makes a defiantly small film, but one that alludes not just to one of the signal achievements of the avant-garde but to one of the notoriously long films of the genre. (Even if 45 minutes isn’t that long, Wavelength’s protraction of time feels much longer, by design.) So No Land seems to be a kind of subtle challenge, part of a new way of working that one sees with a filmmaker like Karissa Hahn, a refusal to make a fetish of the “work,” to operate almost exclusively on the level of the sketch. It will be interesting to see what Chao does next. 

Four very interesting new finds left me a bit puzzled, or even somewhat dissatisfied, but definitely curious to know more about the artists behind them. The most accomplished among them is So Many Voices in the Silence Now by Brazil’s Cristiana Miranda. The work clearly establishes its maker as a talented artist with a distinct perspective. Opening with two texts from a slave girl in the 18th century, So Many Voices represents a curious and intriguing combination of abstract narrative elements and painterly formalism. We see an Afro-Brazilian woman enter an empty house, gradually finding others with whom she forms an ambiguous relationship. (It is strongly implied that these women are ghosts of the Portuguese slave trade.) At the same time, the image is augmented, assaulted even, by thick swipes of paint and emulsion scratches, their gestures recalling both Jennifer Reeves and Norman McLaren. If, in the end, Miranda cannot completely draw these modes together successfully, it is certainly fascinating to watch her try.

Even more compelling in its way, but ultimately more frustrating, was The Forcing, an experimental featurette by Lydia Moyer. There is no mistaking this film’s status as an anguished cri de coeur from someone deeply disturbed by our current geopolitical moment. In fact, Moyer’s film demands to be seen simply due to its impressive ambition; like such films as Bruce Baillie’s Quixote and Arthur Lipsett’s Very Nice, Very Nice, The Forcing strives to engage with its present moment as a historical problem, using formal means to gain perspective on the chaos swirling around us.In The Forcing, we see a kind of zap-zap approximation of channel surfing that is clearly meant to satirize the shallow mentality of capitalist culture. However, as a work in itself, The Forcing conveys its messages in exactly the form that it aims to critique. We see sport hunters cross-cut with soldiers at war. Periodic shots of melting glaciers punctuate the sense of urgency. And in a highly dubious ethical lapse, Moyer contains quick clips of the Charlottesville vehicle attack. It’s clear that the artist is working from a place of despair, and yet The Forcing doesn’t stop to ask whether inserting a clip of Heather Heyer getting mowed down by a car actually accomplishes anything, artistically or politically. I completely understand the impulse to make something like The Forcing, but I’m not sure that doing so necessarily helps.

By contrast, two other works also adopted the rhetorical structures of their objects of parody, but did so with a much clearer sense of purpose and pronounced distance from the objects parodied. Even if they were not entirely successful, they show that the engagement with capitalist techno-culture, which is most certainly a trend in recent experimental film and video, does not have to find itself in thrall to the very forms of that cultural formation. One of those works, Laura Gillmore’s cold soup, pubic hair, raw meat, is a brief two-minute bombardment of website tics and annoyances, with a figure in the center (the artist, perhaps) recumbent and covered with deep painterly reds of strawberry and blood. The basis of the piece was a web-surfing occurrence, during which recipes for strawberry soup and steak tartare were interrupted by a pop-up ad for hair removal. In his book Television, Raymond Williams asked us to think about how our mental separation of TV shows and commercials prevents us for drawing connections that can be discerned if we treat the televisual event as an ongoing “flow.” What would he have made of this decidedly unappetizing moment on Epicurious?

Finally, A Room with a Coconut View by Tulapop Saenjaroen borrows the language of the hotel guest channel to induce a kind of layered anxiety regarding artificial intelligence and the human re-engineering of the natural landscape. The film is essentially a conversation between two AI robots: Kanya (pronounced “kan-EYE-uh”), who provides information and history about the east Thailand beach resort of Bangsaen; and Alex, a visiting tourist. The standard hotel narrative evolves, from an early complaint about an unsatisfactory room, to basic data about the hotel amenities, to an eventual socioeconomic history of the wholesale construction of Bangsaen as a tourist playground built by Thailand’s ruling elites and capitalist gangsters to consolidate their own political power. Eventually, a “tired” Kanya falls asleep, and her dreams reveal the colonial unconscious of Bangsaen, and Thailand more generally. A third AI, “Tessa,” seizes the opportunity to lead Alex away from the circumscribed Western-friendly confines of Bangsaen, into more contested territory.

If Tulapop’s film gets a little to arch for its own good at times, it is nevertheless a great example of how an artwork can engage with the lingua franca of late capitalism without succumbing to its seductive forces. I have observed, for better or worse, that more and more media artists are taking the web-based landscape as their baseline for understanding how sounds and images are assembled. Modernism, and even postmodernism, are over, being replaced by a player to be named later. But this change does not have to mean the sacrifice of critical distance, as artists like Beatrice Gibson, Ryan Trecartin, and indeed, Gillmore and Tulapop clearly demonstrate. And I am confident that as more works occupy that vital space between parody and critical distance, the Crossroads festival will continue to play a crucial role in finding them. After all, that’s what institutions do.



Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


CrossroadsCrossroads 2019Festival CoverageEmily ChaoCristiana MirandaLydia MoyerLaura GillmoreTulapop Saenjaroen
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.