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Running Freely with Scissors: An Interview with Richard Kerr

Artist and filmmaker Richard Kerr, who has a new installation at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, speaks of his career and his work with celluloid.
Ascending Leaders 1. Courtesy the artist and TIFF Bell Lightbox
Whether opting for the institutional designation “time-based media” or the more colloquial “movies,” the art of cinema can seem antithetical to any suspended moment or image. This in spite the fact that we’re typically watching 24 (or 25) still frames pour before our eyes every second. 
Since his early years as a student at Ontario’s Sheridan College, alongside fellow luminaries of the since-dubbed “Escarpment School,” artist and filmmaker Richard Kerr has routinely pursued an interest in the material elements of celluloid film. In addition to his prolific work in experimental shorts and features, and an extensive teaching background at Concordia University in Montreal, Kerr has quietly been producing what he calls Motion Picture Weavings since the early 1990s, lightboxes displaying 35mm and 65mm IMAX film strips arranged into unique patterns.
Postindustrial, on view at the TIFF Bell Lightbox until June 10, consists of 16 recent lightboxes produced between 2014 and 2016, alongside a digitized dual slide projection (Demi-Monde, 2014) and the short film Drill Blue (2014), presented digitally. We sat down to speak with Kerr about his early days at Sheridan College, the move from experimental film to visual art, and shifting significance of celluloid film. 

NOTEBOOK: When did you make your first lightbox? What did you use as a source material and how did you develop the process?
RICHARD KERR: It was in Regina in the early 90s. I’ve always worked with students as collaborators, and some had brought me a box of Hollywood trailers that they had found at an abandoned drive-in. So the trailers were sitting in my studio and just by happenstance we were cleaning up at the end of a day’s work and started cutting the trailers into strips. I had a sheet of Plexiglas and the next thing you know we were taping strips onto it. We put the material into its almost natural form by overlaying and weaving it, to give it some structure. Then we put it up against the light and I recognized that there was something to it, on a lot of different levels.
It was very organic, but more importantly in the years preceding I was searching for a home-based visual arts practice, something that wouldn’t take me away from home. For about 10 or 15 years my films were essentially travelogues, and that was a lot of time on the road.
Then I had my first show called the Motion Picture After Series at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina [in 1998]. At that point, I was obsessed with this weaving practice. It seemed very fresh on all levels, in part due to the recycling aspect and found materials—I was surrounded by film at the time—or perhaps more importantly a revitalized way of working with film. So, you know, it was a type of an epiphany.
Rhythmic One (2014). Image courtesy the artist.
NOTEBOOK: You mention the desire to foster a studio-based practice. Did you have background in visual art before you pursued filmmaking as a vocation?
KERR: I’m a very Canadian boy of the 50s that had absolutely no art in the household growing up; that word was never mentioned. We were totally a sports family at a very serious level and that’s a huge part of my formation, as the first 20 years of my life were spent in sports, athletics. There was no pull towards art, largely it was a process of self-cultivation and discovery on my own.
In my early 20s I went to Sheridan College, which was a technical school. I went there with the idea in mind that I’d learn a technical trade like cinematography, film editing, or producing, and then I’d return to my hometown and make car commercials. That all changed at Sheridan college where we worked in Super 8, 16mm and Portapak—the materials were put in front of me. Film just came into my life and Sheridan had a specific pedagogy—a sort of industrial training, but with this quirky art school funk and feel about it.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about influences from the realm of visual art and the shift from making time-based media to visual art?
KERR: If there’s one influence, it relates to my move in interest from cinema to visual arts: my encounter with David Hockney, through discovering his books and pictures, as well as his writing about photography, and collage. He was a real influence.
I liked Hockney’s iconoclastic attitude and the playfulness of his work and his adventures with collage and photography. Coming out of college, I was influenced by the work of Jack Chambers and Michael Snow, both visual artists who work with film. Having models like Chambers, Snow and Hockney were important, their work and writings were accessible and spoke to me. I am always returning to their work for ideas, solutions and ways of working.
I always felt like I was a reluctant experimental filmmaker. I did it, I had some skill and passion for it, and sustained it for a long period of time, while ultimately it allowed me a sort of back-door cultivation into the visual arts. By ’92 I really felt that I had run the table with 16mm; I had exhausted what I came to do and had my own canon of films of influence that I return to. There was the acknowledgement that I was more of a practitioner than a lover of cinema—but always with an obsession to make things—that gets us back to the initial impulse of the object-making and working directly with materials, and the discovery of new forms.
Love and Anarchy (2016). Image courtesy the artist.
NOTEBOOK: What sort of relationship exists between the material you’re working with and the form of each lightbox? Does any single factor—whether gauge, content, or color—play a determining role?  
KERR: This question is really the central proposition of the whole weaving process and operation. Above all, what I like about it is that it’s non-technical—there are no computers or machines—it’s really essentially scissors and tape; there’s a real freedom from technology. My mind and hands move freely without machines.
So what you’re faced with is a sheet of white Plexiglas of a predetermined size and scale. And it starts fresh: you flick on the light and it’s white, obviously like a blank screen or a blank canvas. It’s formally very simple and the proposition before you is very basic. You have the film material, whatever you’ve selected, and inevitably you have to lay the first couple strips down…
You just follow that process all the while and you’re at the service of the material, which does what it wants to do. Every weaving has its own process, its own puzzle. You work through it in this sort of physical/mental state, almost like a stream of consciousness; its look, make, learn, and teach yourself.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about the source materials? In Postindustrial there is a great amount of Hollywood imagery and industrial material, like leader or frames for color timing, but also IMAX films and material from the National Film Board of Canada.
KERR: I’ve never looked for film. It just finds me and it comes in waves. The first wave came when the NFB in Regina decided to get rid of their entire 16mm film collection and just throw it in the dumpster in the alleyway, so I was there and intercepted and carried it away in 3 pick-up trucks, which included a complete set of [Norman] McLaren and [Arthur] Lipsett prints.
More recently, at TIFF I met a projectionist and he knew about my weavings. We made an exchange and he gave me 800 Hollywood trailers from his personal collection in exchange I made him a weaving, a good barter. The IMAX material was rescued on its way to the dumpster, by a student/projectionist. I am not a collector of film, I do not seek out specific material; I’m more of a recycler of what comes to me. It’s all material and serves the greater purpose of making it a new.
NOTEBOOK: Can we talk more about the Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambart films? The crisscrossed digits and characters of Rhythmetic, the source material for two pieces on display, almost seems at operate on a similar principle as certain weavings. 
KERR: Materially speaking, McLaren is easy to work with due to its graphic nature; it’s highly organized in patterns and rhythms, colors and shapes. I’ve recently acquired a new set of McLaren prints. I look forward to working with them and developing more complex designs, and building on the suite of the four existing McLaren Weavings. My hope is that I will be able to return this material in its woven form to the NFB for their new Montreal building, as a sort of homage to McLaren.
Untitled (2014). Image courtesy of the artist.
NOTEBOOK: Your Untitled works are different than a lot of the lightboxes in the show, using found footage but also incorporating physical manipulation and degradation. What sort of techniques are you utilizing?
KERR: Those are essentially seasoned and organic in nature. In spring, I work outside and use two processes. One is simply burying film underground and then digging it up 2-3 weeks later. It’s decayed with distressed colors, and very much a chance operation. The other process is using Fleischmann’s yeast and sugar, mixing that up, placing it in clear garbage bags, then leaving it out in the sun for 2-3 weeks and letting the fermentation do its business.
It becomes all very abstract and difficult to make out individual frames and patterns, so there’s a whole different sense of collage. You’re dictated by the rhythms of the decay and deterioration. They’re intense to make because you have to find the structure within all the abstraction.
NOTEBOOK: They’re quite very fun to spend time with, to spot a celebrity or film titles you might not expect.
KERR: That’s the game of the weavings. I think the best ones are the ones where you can have repeated viewings. You can look at something a number of times and see it from different points. They operate according to certain sites and at different scales.
I approach and understand the weavings as hybrid of painterly, sculptural, and cinematic forms and source inspiration from all three traditions. I have done close to 100 weavings and they break down into two visual camps; the readable, where there is a narrative structure and a recognizable iconography. Then there are the abstract, painterly weavings. The challenge has always been how to keep the basic forms of weaving fresh; what new approaches can be discovered with the material, structure and visual form.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve been producing these works for many years, and have produced these works at the same time celluloid film has grown increasingly rarefied, supplanted by digital production and exhibition. Has this influenced how the weavings are produced or received?
KERR: There is an exotic and mysterious nature to viewing analog film materials today. The Motion Picture Weaving Project resonates in this respect, as it preserves yet redefines a sense of the archive. On the other hand, I’m a practitioner who works in the studio, with the most obvious of materials: recycled film, and a space where I recuse myself from the institutionalism of the digital world—a space where I can run freely with the scissors.

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