Eye of the Needle
The 2018 NYFF Projections series included six features, four featurettes, and 22 short films. That’s a grand total of 1,051 minutes of programming, or just over 17 and ½ hours of experimental cinema. Obviously, in that amount of time, one could watch a Lav Diaz film. But Projections offered considerably more variety, with highlights that included a sexually ambiguous footballer given to hallucinations of giant Pekingese puppies (Abrantes and Schmidt’s Diamantino); a corpulent French monarch writhing on the floor (Albert Serra’s Roi Soleil); two restored feminist classics from the 1980s that borrowed liberally from the aesthetics of children’s TV and classic game shows (Ericka Beckman’s Cinderella and You the Better); and an unconventional documentary about the legacy of radical psychoanalysis in Argentina (Dora García’s Segunda Vez).
As one might expect, certain thematic similarities began to emerge among the various films, but those are probably as much in the eye of the beholder as they are in the Zeitgeist. Nevertheless, a number of films seemed to engage with questions of archival knowledge, cataloging, and the complications that digital technologies have introduced into what was once a strictly material record. I have written elsewhere about Jodie Mack’s work from this year, but I think that in this context, it is worth reconsidering both Hoarders Without Borders 1.0 and her feature film The Grand Bizarre.
The first, shorter film is more explicitly about marking through an archive—specifically, the collected rocks, minerals, and detritus of Mary Johnson. As Mack uses frame-by-frame cinematography to rush through the various specimens and their label cards, we can see that the archive is “troubled” by some outliers. Objects that are obviously rocks appear side by side with Corn Nuts and rock candy. “One of these things is not like the other.” And so the very nature of archival organization is disrupted.
If we reverse this notion, we have a film like The Grand Bizarre, wherein Mack herself, and her camera, are the specimens, placing themselves (and her personal logotype, the printed textile) into various locations and cultures, so as to catalog her own experiences. Mack is “taking in the world,” only to demonstrate just how impossible it really is to catalog, and how in fact she is merely documenting her own presence, her responses, and the political networks of which she is a single but uniquely knotty node.
An equally personal, indeed idiosyncratic response to archival materials can be found in Janie Geiser’s latest film Valeria Street. Geiser is a modern master of the avant-garde, and although this is a clearly transitional film for her, one can still observe the keen facility with which she is able to generate evocative moodscapes from the most basic filmic elements. The core of Valeria Street is comprised of a collection of industrial images from a chemical company, several of which feature a team of executives, one of which is Geiser’s father. There is a compelling play with past and present tense in the film, with Geiser returning to the original site of the factory to produce some solarized tracking shots that recall Bruce Baillie’s Castro Street. At the same time, much of the film falls back on techniques that are familiar from earlier Geiser films – flicker, distortion, use of spotlighting, animated diagrams and geometrical figures. Valeria Street perhaps indicates a tentative encounter with a deeply personal archive, whereas future work might find her delving more deeply into its broader meanings.
Dealing with a more public history, Katherin McInnis’s Eye of a Needle examines one of the most famous archives of government-produced images in American history: the photographs of the Great Depression taken by the photographers affiliated with Roy Stryker’s Farm Security Administration. Drawing on the thousands of images now in the public domain, McInnis explores the process by which certain images submitted by the photographers—Dorothea Langue, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and others—were “killed.” That is, Stryker deemed certain negatives to be unacceptable and destroyed them by punching holes through the negatives. In recent years, the Library of Congress has been printing these “killed” images, black hole and all. Eye of a Needle pairs up subsequent negatives on a reel, the accepted image, inducted into the American historical archive, and the “killed” image, refused such a place in history. As we can see, the differences are often negligible—a tilt of the landscape, a position of an arm—but sometimes have to do with gender or race. Eye of a Needle is an exceptional film that drives home the lesson that historical knowledge is a palpable thing, often determined by the choices of a select few, or in this case, one man.
From its Mouth Came a River of High End Residential Appliances
Several other films directly engage with archival materials, or questions of archival preservation and complications, but to mixed effect. The duo of Steve Reinke and James Richards were included with their beautifully titled What Weakens the Flesh is the Flesh Itself, a sprawling effort that might have been productively split into several shorter pieces. Starting out with an eight-minute presentation of photographs of German artist Albrecht Becker, the piece soon fans out in multiple directions, many pertaining to a vague post-humanism. In the film’s emotional high point, Reinke relates a story about an image of a random boy being embossed directly onto his skin, an evocative image in a film that often felt remote and standoffish.
The archival tendency can be seen as well in Ben Thorp Brown’s Gropius Memory Palace, a very interesting film that nevertheless feels at odds with itself. On the one hand, Brown’s film is a careful but freeform examination of the Fagus-Werk, a German factory for the production of shoe lasts that was designed by Bauhaus leader Walter Gropius as a space of idealized, harmonized industrial production. In a manner recalling the work of Harun Farocki, Brown observes the connection between the labor that transpires within the factory and the architectural design and organization of the building, leaving the viewer to contemplate Gropius’ legacy and the utopian modernist project more generally. Gropius Memory Palace bites off more than it can chew, however, as Brown tries to connect the Bauhaus project, and the experience of laboring bodies, to cognitive science and theories of how neural networks encode memory in the brain. One can understand how Brown’s own creative mind may have arrived at these homologies—the very concept of the shoe last is a kind of etched body memory that is used as a pattern for future production. But the film is a bit of a muddle in the end, despite its admirable ambition.
A more satisfying engagement with architectural history, Ben Rivers’ Trees Down Here is a film that, like the Mack works, I have written about elsewhere. But it bears repeating, Rivers’ examination of the structural composition of a building at Churchill College, and in particular the work of the 6a group of architects, is an original intervention in terms of what cinema can bring to architectural history. Rivers articulates spaces together not only with instances of their use, but with journals, drafts, notebooks, and blueprints, so that we see a building in essence being made and unmade across the running time of the film. Trees Down Here is a kind of archival action, an endeavor that intervenes in our understanding of how sequential presents are enfolded into multiple perceived, usable pasts.
A third film engaged with architectural theory, although not necessarily in an archival sense. Jon Wang’s exceedingly sharp From Its Mouth Came a River of High-End Residential Appliances looks critically at the mark of older ideologies on contemporary buildings in Hong Kong, specifically high-rise luxury apartments. The logic of feng shui, officially banned in communist China, finds its way into Hong Kong capitalism, despite the fact that it defies the equally rigid logic of the profit motive. Wang has a drone pilot navigate camera-planes through large holes in the apartment buildings that were placed there for “energy flow,” despite the fact that the presence of these gaps results in the loss of valuable real estate. From Its Mouth becomes a complex meditation on neoliberal capital, Asian identity, and the instability of older models as they are adapted for the present.
A film that is, in its own way, far simpler in its approach, and yet all the more successful for that straightforwardness, is Luminous Shadow by the Portuguese duo of Mariana Caló and Francisco Queimadela. It is a film created from a literal archive, in this case resulting from a residency at the International Arts Center José de Guimarães. Caló and Queimadela explore the history and official imprimatur of the hosting institution, much in the same manner that American artist Fred Wilson uses curation as a form of artistic commentary. In Luminous Shadow, we see artifacts re-presented alongside their catalog images, their descriptions, and in the midst of copies of copies. In one segment, the film documents the photocopying of images out of exhibition catalogs, showing the sweep of the copier’s light bar as it reveals dual images on each side of the page. Elsewhere in Luminous Shadows, the filmmakers cut out statuary heads and place them on different bodies, an “exquisite corpse” maneuver that reminds us that in the early days of anthropology, it wasn’t so far removed from such Surrealist games.
In this act, Caló and Queimadela emphasize that the publication of a catalog places all art objects and artifacts in a semi-permanent new context, one that will henceforth define their reception. Later on in Luminous Shadow, we hear the voice of philosopher José Gil, explaining creation as a primitive act “beyond consciousness,” describing art itself as a set of “invisible forces from the body.” While one could assume that Gil is speaking about non-Western or pre-Columbian art, there is nothing in his discourse to suggest that he is not talking about all creative acts. And so, at the end of the film, when the voiceover reads from the Book of Genesis, and the images of the “idols” are shown burning, one gets the sense that we are observing not only the triumph of the Western narrative of creation. We are witnessing the closure of the archive, the end of Surrealist mystery and the beginning of periods, categories, definitions.
But all is not lost. As long as experimental filmmakers continue to engage with questions of archival memory, there will still be a place for the undisciplined counter-knowledges that characterized the unruly days of the human sciences. While the films discussed above are, in the most obvious sense, examples of independent filmmakers turning to historical materials in order to create aesthetic objects, they are also, in a very real sense, examples of historical research, conducted by other means. Artists are not therefore merely plundering the archive. They are actively shaping it, and indeed, contributing to it. And as long as creative minds are directly engaged with questions of material history, we will be fortunate enough to still find the occasional disruptive element—the Corn Nut in the rockpile.