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The Second Kind of Artist: An Interview with Mike Hoolboom

Mike Hoolboom talks about New York, avant-garde fetishes and destroying capitalism.

Mike Hoolboom. Photo by Tamara de la Fuente.

Is being photographed the only way to cheat death? Ask Mike Hoolboom, in whose Public Lighting (2004) the question is posed. Presented on 8 October as part of a retrospective of his work at the eleventh CurtoCircuíto—the excellent international short film festival in Santiago de Compostela, a city in Galicia, northwest Spain—Public Lighting is in many ways emblematic of Hoolboom’s work.

To begin with, there’s its agitated, almost frantic need to pay tribute to the world and its miscellany—and to allow such heterogeneity to inform its imagistic, editorial and thematic fabrics. Separated into seven aesthetically distinct segments, Public Lighting is about the many sources of pleasure to be found in an otherwise uncertain universe. It is about Madonna, Philip Glass, New York; it’s about identity and the inevitability of change; it’s about the amusing and tragic disconnect between unspoken desire and lived experience. More than anything, however, the film is about images: not just the literal, pre-existing and original footage that Hoolboom lays atop one another, but those ethereally conjured by association—with a mysterious glance, an erotic juxtaposition, a delicate superimposition or a musical cue.

The Toronto-born filmmaker’s oeuvre is an ongoing project whose individual components burn with a desire both to confront and to break free of the social prejudices, political failures and personal torments surrounding his own continuing battle with HIV since the late 1980s. Hoolboom’s is a gestural cinema: essayistic, yes, but also profoundly political. The singular sense of self that permeates his works is conditioned and conditioning.

“Each of us,” he noted in a post-screening discussion at CurtoCircuíto, “if we live past a certain moment—let’s say 5 or 6 years old—have so many faces within us. We have enormous pressures, from the outside and then from the inside, which creates one image of who a person might be. The austerity program being imposed in this country, for instance, is an image of how a person might be.” Adversity, then—whether economic, political or indeed biological—informs but never defines identity, precisely because a person is always, ineluctably and irrevocably, fighting back.

Hoolboom’s films—from Frank’s Cock (1993) to Buffalo Death Mask (2013)—are exhaustingly maximalist in the best possible way. In Public Lighting, a line of text referring to Philip Glass reads, “It’s not the melody people listen to, but its persistence.” The same, indeed, can be said of Mike Hoolboom’s cinema: it’s perhaps not the images we see, but their perseverance. The following interview took place on 9 October in dry but visible proximity to the cheerless downpour of a Galician autumn.


NOTEBOOK: This is a new version of Public Lighting. What’s changed?

MIKE HOOLBOOM: I had a retrospective at the Anthology Film Archives. I showed it as an SP tape, which is what it was mastered on, and it looked terrible, because the projector settings wanted to be fed with digital files, and analogue tape through a digital files projector creates all kinds of extra things in the image. It just really looked dire. So I thought I would try to up-res the movie.

NOTEBOOK: Has it changed narratively?

HOOLBOOM: No. Though I recreated the entire Madonna and Philip Glass pieces. And I tweaked all the other sections, but now I’m really wondering if that’s a good idea.

NOTEBOOK: The work in progress that’s screening here—the synopsis only says it’s a mystery, a surprise. Tell me more about it.

HOOLBOOM: It’s called Scrapbook. It was shot in the 1960s by my friend Jeffrey Paull, who was working in what’s called a development centre, which is a mental hospital but more like a daycare—it’s residential. And astonishingly at this moment of time, there was great hope for the media. Media education was just beginning. And so he was brought in there to teach the kids—all of whom had various psychological problems—how to make pictures, which meant analogue, photographs, darkroom work, hand-processing, making prints, little bits of work with video. So he showed up to work everyday—and this would be considered therapeutic, although he wasn’t a therapist. Simply the act of producing pictures of each other—who are we, who am I—these fundamental questions of identity would be addressed through his work.

NOTEBOOK: And this is a work in progress?

HOOLBOOM: It’s a work in progress. Everything I do…

NOTEBOOK: To what extent are all of your films works in progress?

HOOLBOOM: Everything gets worked on until I can’t stand it anymore, and then I withdraw it. It’s nice to have a body of work that shrinks as you grow older. I’m aspiring to that. Less and less.

NOTEBOOK: Your films are so densely packed to begin with. How do you begin to script a film like Public Lighting?

HOOLBOOM: There were a couple of pieces that began with a text. But often it begins with a conversation, and then that conversation leads somewhere. So for instance in the last piece, ‘Amy,’ I had a long conversation with a woman who was photographed by Jock Sturges when she was 15 or 16, and she talked about that time: what she felt, what she went through. You know, he works with a large format camera, he sells it in important galleries around the world. ‘What does it mean to have a picture of me in this way?’ And it really astonished me. And so I started developing a script out of that conversation.

NOTEBOOK: Presumably there’s a level of intimacy required before you get onto these topics in everyday conversation. Were you already friends with this woman?

HOOLBOOM: We didn’t really know each other.

NOTEBOOK: How do you come to source the imagery that you employ in your films?

HOOLBOOM: It depends [from] project to project. In the portrait of Philip Glass for instance, I thought that I would try to make a picture of New York City, made of different pieces, different parts, but I always knew that I wanted to end up with Philip himself, that he would arrive as a figure. So in a way it’s the reversal of the figure in the ground. The movie is almost all ground and then we get the figure. In a sense I think you could say the same of his music, that the music is all ground, hardly any figure.

NOTEBOOK: What drew you to Philip Glass to begin with?

HOOLBOOM: Pure pleasure, firstly. I always had this idea that there are two kinds of artist. The first kind of artist has a big blank canvas and they dip their brush or stick in the paint and [gestures to paint]: one stroke and it’s done. And then the other artist has to invent paints, and everything that ever happened in their life has to get smudged onto the canvas in some way. I’ve always been the second kind of artist, but I long of course to be the first.

NOTEBOOK: And you think Glass is the first.

HOOLBOOM: Yes, it seems so.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve returned to New York City several times in your work. What is it about that place in cinematic terms that you find so alluring?

HOOLBOOM: When we say New York, for me at least, it’s shorthand for saying ‘Manhattan, the island.’ And because the island is such a circumscribed place, in order for something new to happen there—or a new building, for instance—part of the past has to be erased. So it seems to me that there’s always this double movement, of forgetting and remembering, of letting go and holding on, and there’s something tremendously energizing or energized about that. It becomes a sort of metaphor for the self, or for how one might make a biography: what is it that we’re not going to show, what is it that we’re going to leave behind, and then what can we bring forward as evidence?

NOTEBOOK: How important is it for you to finish one film before you begin another?

HOOLBOOM: It used to be absolute. But over the last four years I’ve changed, I’ve hit these absolute blocks, and I stopped and started making another movie, and then I blocked again and started another one. Now I have this gigantic backlog.

NOTEBOOK: You collaborated frequently with editor Mark Karbusicky [1972-2007]. What did Mark bring to your films?

HOOLBOOM: Those films were made on an Avid, a complicated editing system that I don’t know how to use, so he’s touching the buttons, and even though it’s strange to say, there’s a certain technical intimacy. How long is that dissolve, how long does it take us to hear that sound as it comes in? So he’s doing all of these micro level adjustments, and my movies are filled with exactly those.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve worked in the past with analogue film, and have hand-processed 16mm. Is digital something to embrace, something to fear or both?

HOOLBOOM: This is a funny moment because what’s become known as the avant-garde has this fetish, or so it seems to me, with analogue film. Film as film. Whereas for me, when I started, everyone was making film, it was the usual, ordinary thing and the city was filled with film labs. We had I think four Super-8 film labs. So it’s hard for me to muster that same sense of loss, nostalgia. I don’t really have a fetish around any particular way of making films. I think what’s important is what people are doing with the materials. I do feel, though, that the avant-garde has very often been taken up with notions of duration, and the question of attention, which seems to me central to the entire project of fringe movies, and there’s something about watching an image on film that invites duration.

NOTEBOOK: So you still prefer to watch films from a print.

HOOLBOOM: If it was shot on film, that’s for sure. On the other hand, there’s ever-new generations of digital technology that are producing new forms of duration. Those also seem beautiful. But there was a long in-between period. I don’t want to watch hour-long 3/4" U-matic takes about anything.

NOTEBOOK: How important is it for your films to be shown and exhibited in cinemas?

HOOLBOOM: Without an audience the work feels incomplete, and there’s a sort of futility to the enterprise. I think what I’m struggling with at this late moment in my life, is perhaps a crisis of faith. And I think I felt strongly, when I started making work, that my movies—which were very difficult and obscure and materialist—were part of a larger liberationist project. There was a series of liberations. It was about gay liberation, about black liberation, women’s liberation, animal’s liberation. And there was some, perhaps preposterous sense that if one could decode or look closely enough at the materials of cinema, one would find within it encoded the mechanisms of capitalism itself—and that we would be able to undo those mechanisms by asking the audience to engage in different modes of attention, and therefore live in some way outside of that system.

NOTEBOOK: And that’s changed?

HOOLBOOM: That doesn’t seem to be what the so-called avant-garde is about today. I mean for one thing we didn’t destroy capitalism!

NOTEBOOK: What do you think is missing in the current avant-garde?

HOOLBOOM: Precisely that political project, which in some ways was, I felt at least, implicit. I began work as a collective at the Funnel [a theatre in Toronto]. I mean the computer has in some ways brought blessings, but it’s also brought us a new form of loneliness. And whereas in the past our expensive, difficult-to-use media machines required that we come together in these collective spaces to share this gear, now we can all be hunkered down in our own little spots, and we can even show them and exhibit them on the internet, the place that’s everywhere and nowhere.

NOTEBOOK: It seems to me that the avant-garde’s been individualized in a way that perhaps wasn’t in its origins and intentions.

HOOLBOOM: Yeah. I mean it had this curious duality, of collectivity that gathering in a cinema requires, and then also this hyperbolic subjectivity. You know, the grand romantics of that classical American period, with Brakhage etc. But one can find, within that, deep strains of queer counterculture. Not that they would have been named like that at that time, but they’re very easy to piece out and unravel in the light of other, more overt events like Stonewall for instance. You began to see: oh, Fireworks, the ’50s movie by Kenneth Anger, starts to look different—or part of a liberationist project, which seems much more clear through that lens.

Whereas now, the avant-garde has been somewhat professionalized. I mean, how the hell are people going make a living while they end up in schools, and what do they do in schools? Well you start creating canons of work—these are the important artists…

NOTEBOOK: And reproducing and reinforcing the very mechanisms that one should perhaps be challenging.

HOOLBOOM: I think the first rule, if there was any rule, when I started making work was that everyone has to find their own way. Like, if you’re going to do it the way I’m going to do it, that’s wrong. And now there’s whole genres of work that look like they were made 30 years ago—and that doesn’t seem avant to me.

NOTEBOOK: How comfortable are you to be termed and exhibited as an experimental filmmaker?

HOOLBOOM: I don’t think it helps audiences come out! I don’t think people hear that term and think, ‘Yeah! I gotta go see that one!’ It’s more like, ‘Oh, that’s gonna be a tough night out.’ I always liked the term fringe. Because many things are circulating on the fringe: iconoclasts, things that don’t fit, you know. And that has particular interest in many kinds of forms, in literature and theatre.

NOTEBOOK: To what extent do you find programs explicitly dedicated to experimental cinema problematic?

HOOLBOOM: Where I think they’re helpful is in simply identifying a field that to people remains completely opaque. You know, ‘People make movies in that way?’ Or, ‘People would call that a movie?’ But the unfortunate part of it is that it can become a ghetto for the likeminded specialists who have already seen everything and who are just topping up. I think the hope for this kind of work, if it has some kind of political purchase, is to be able to speak outside of the confines of those who are making, distributing and exhibiting the work. Like some kind of ‘a public,’ which for instance I think at [CurtoCircuíto] actually happens—which is amazing.

NOTEBOOK: What films do you currently respond to? Is there anyone whose works you find particularly exciting?

HOOLBOOM: I don’t know. There’s so many people that I love. But you know, my friends are making work and I’m in deep conversation with Gary Popovich and Steve Sanguedolce. We’ve been looking at and sharing each other’s work for decades now. Gary’s going to show his new film in two weeks and he hasn’t made a film in 14 years. And it’s just a slow burn. I can see every conversation we’ve ever had and every relationship he’s ever had, and his kids. I can see all of his living in this film and it makes me wish that I had the patience to persevere in the way that he has been able to.

NOTEBOOK: Your 2002 feature, Tom, is about your friend Tom Chomont [1942-2010]. Tom’s billed in the film’s synopsis as a raconteur. How important is it for you to tell stories, to record certain phenomena and experiences through storytelling?

HOOLBOOM: I think stories are always entertaining. They’re a way to engage. I mean the cinema is an empathy machine. And it allows us to jump into other people’s bodies, and it allows us to experience their experiences. And one of the most important things that it can do is to take us into darker, difficult places, or unimaginable places—but we can do it with some kind of sympathy, or tenderness.

The problem that I had when I started work on the movie with Tom is that he was in such terrible physical shape. He had Parkinson’s, which is an illness that causes one to shake uncontrollably or freeze up and be paralyzed. And so he looked freaky. And the way that he looked was so different to the way that I’d experienced. So I needed to find a workaround: how can I show people the Tom that I know? And I can’t just do it by propping up a camera and saying, ‘Go Tom, go!’

That was one part. Another part was that he’s made many films and videos, and there’s very few words in them. He’s part of that ‘visionary,’ eye-first, American avant-garde, which comes out of a fundamental distrust of language. It’s as if language has failed us and now we need to return to a more primal sense of seeing.

NOTEBOOK: Do you think language has failed us?

HOOLBOOM: No. See, on the other hand Tom is a prodigious talker. And he has an almost photographic memory, so he could tell you, ‘Well, the first memory I ever had was right after birth, and I’m on the delivery table, and there’s this completely white light.’ Really? ‘And then the white light dissolves into what I would later learn are the forms of humans, and that was the doctor and the nurse and then my mother’s breast.’ Really, Tom? ‘I, I, I had it all come back to me in an acid flashback!’ Oh, wow, of course!

NOTEBOOK: You make reference to cinema as an empathy machine. I’m interested in the tonal complexity of your works. On the one hand they’re incredibly funny, and in the same moment can be heartbreakingly sad. How do you approach and achieve that?

HOOLBOOM: Well, for instance when I was making Frank’s Cock: the year is 1993. It’s three years before the Cocktail arrives, to save the lives of everyone who was fortunate to be born in a country that has reasonable healthcare. So it meant that HIV at that moment was a death sentence, and that there were thousands of us who were dying everyday. It was inescapable. And there was a tremendous amount of fear—within the community as well. But you know, doctors would be afraid to see you. Most of the doctors in town wouldn’t deal with anyone who was HIV positive.

So, I wanted to make a movie ‘about’ AIDS. But I didn’t want to reduce a person to their symptoms, or to their illness. I wanted to make them a person, [for them] to be a person first, and then the AIDS part would come after, so again one could jump into that person, and live a bit of the life of that person, and then feel a little bit like, ‘Oh, I might have a stake in this too.’ So that has something to do with the balance of the humor and the sadness. Humor is a good way to let people in.

NOTEBOOK: Not enough films do it. Especially within the avant-garde.

HOOLBOOM: The funny works that are canonical would never be shown today. Like those early movies by the Kuchars? I think people would just dismiss them as trash. ‘We would never show that in our festival, or certainly not in the experimental section—that’s only for real artists.’

NOTEBOOK: I want to talk about ‘Hiro,’ the segment in Public Lighting. You’ve mentioned this is giving expression to memories that someone doesn’t necessarily have, as an immigrant. Could you elaborate on that?

HOOLBOOM: The movie features a Japanese-Canadian guy, whose name is Hiro Kanagawa. His first name is contiguous with Hiroshima, and he’s haunted by memories of the bombing of Hiroshima, a city that he’s never been in. And yet somehow it’s as if there’s this genetic trace that is calling him back.

For me, I feel like my parents’ extreme experiences during the Second World War marked me completely. Their memories are somehow deeper than anything I could’ve experienced in the tremendous, cloistered safety that they tried to wrap themselves around. They tried so hard that it was a kind of a return of the repressed, in a sense, because it was nowhere and everywhere. And many people that I’ve spoken with have very similar kinds of experiences, and these displacements often come out of some kind of trauma.

And it was enough for [my parents] simply to try to make their way in [Canada], knowing no one there at all. They’re both born in Indonesia. My mother went through the Japanese occupation and the camps over there, and my father was in Holland and the very long occupation by the Germans—and his father, my grandfather, was taken off to Buchenwald. So it’s somehow left as a kind of inheritance for the next generation to deal with—to unpack, say, emotionally.

There’s a kind of double vision at work. There’s the psychic reality of that moment, of the camps in both countries, and then there’s the physical reality that I see around me in these orderly houses, in these orderly school hours. And out of this double vision comes, I think, something like experimental movies, which need somehow to always question the acts of representation—the kinds of pictures we’re absorbing, or how we make pictures.

NOTEBOOK: If you had to choose a work to summarize your aesthetic, or if someone could only watch one film to get the best idea of your work, what would it be?

HOOLBOOM: The one that I’m making now.

NOTEBOOK: Scrapbook?

HOOLBOOM: No, it’s called We Make Couples. A bunch of it is shot in Super-8. It’s a portrait of these two women. It’s also a portrait of Occupy Toronto, and there’s also various found footages in it. It’s a reflection on relationships and capitalism. How can we create a couple that isn’t simply going to bury [itself] away in domesticity and need to support the prevailing system as it exists? How could a couple be an agent of social transformation?

NOTEBOOK: And how can they?

HOOLBOOM: Still working on that.

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