MUBI is partnering with the New York Film Festival to present highlights from Projections, a festival program of film and video work that expands upon our notions of what the moving image can do and be. Michael Robinson's Mad Ladders (2015) is showing on MUBI nearly worldwide October 5 - September 4, 2016.
Mad Ladders began in 2013, as I was trawling through Whitney Houston videos, thinking I might make something of her many televised entrances and exits from stages and sets, and perhaps incorporate them into a different project (which soon after became The Dark, Krystle). Houston’s performance of “All at Once” from the 1987 American Music Awards started my fascination with the show’s elaborate staging. Following an introduction by host Diana Ross, the music begins, and a patterned curtain rises to reveal Houston walking downstage in silhouette as a formation of three large triangular sculptures move gracefully around her, all while the camera creeps steadily inward. The triangles are pink with black-and-white checkerboard accents, the background shifts from deep magenta to lime green, and Houston’s angular 80s pantsuit gleams bright white.
I began thinking about how these technical choreographies of stage and camera strive to mesmerize their audiences and mythologize their subjects. I decided to treat this era of televisual stagecraft as a somewhat lost and occult art form, a world away from the ubiquity of digital screens and flying multi-camera capture that has replaced it today. Just watch Beyoncé’s 16-minute medley from the 2016 VMAs to see how much the relationships between camera, entertainer, stage, audience and perspective have transformed over the past 30 years of mainstream “live” television.
Rephotographing and processing dozens of performers’ entrances/reveals from over a decade’s worth of the AMAs (1980-93), I was left with a collection of murky, fragmentary moments, all loaded with a strange, ceremonial tension. I wanted to weave an element of storytelling through them—one that was similarly concerned with revelation, and could give voice to the latent contracts of power and devotion at work in these images. So, the narration that drives Mad Ladders originates from the YouTube channel of an evangelical “prophet” from the southern US, who posts impassioned audio recollections of her frequent visions and dreams. I love her voice, and find her stories to be beautifully deranged—dense with familiar biblical iconography set amidst more surreal, unhinged dream scenarios. I removed the specific religious names and references to retain just the fantastical, mythological elements of her storytelling: geometric hallucination, shapeshifting, rapturous violence, and ultimately, complete metaphysical transformation.
And so, these two notions of revelation, both equally full of magic and delusion, are merged into something else—their union consecrated against a porous, celestial backdrop of luminous rolling clouds (filmed from my backyard in upstate NY) and a pounding 8-bit hymn. When we look into the heavens, what do we see? Swirling golden triangles, men with the heads of beasts, a woman dressed in blood, and birds flying through the sun? Or was that Rick James gyrating behind sliding walls, Janet Jackson summoning fireworks with a handclap, Kenny Rogers cowering below ascending rainbow columns, and Paula Abdul writhing in a floating spherical cage? Is there a difference, and does it matter? Religion is where you find it, not just where you bump and grind it.