Sabrina Gschwandtner discusses editing, deterioration, and "women's work" in her series of quilts constructed from old film.
Artist and writer Sabrina Gschwandtner’s celluloid quilts are exquisitely rendered objects that make instantly clear the intertwined histories of filmmaking and sewing. As colorful as it is complex, this suite of works is constructed from 16mm film prints that were deaccessioned from the Fashion Institute of Technology’s collection. Gschwandtner repurposes these abandoned images into elegantly composed tapestries that greatly expand our notion of film editing, narrative and the moving image. A selection of these pieces is currently included in the exhibit alt_quilts: Sabrina Gschwandtner, Luke Haynes, Stephen Sollins, which is on display at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City until January 5, 2014.
Andrew Lampert What was it, besides of course the visual splendor, in these particular quilt patterns and traditional forms that attracted you, as opposed to crazy quilting and going off the grid? As long as you’re doing something like this, it’s almost like there’s this free rein to go totally avant-garde, but in a way these constraining factors are so wonderful.
Sabrina Gschwandtner Well, there are two reasons. One is that it’s actually difficult to make shapes out of this material that aren’t squares, rectangles, or triangles. So, in terms of crazy quilts—and I’ve tried doing them—it’s hard to sew a circle to a rectangle and then sew another piece of film in there to match the space that’s missing. The other thing that drew me to quilt patterns is that they provide narrative frameworks.
AL It’s a template.
SG Yes—a quilt pattern is a template, a recognizable visual structure, and a framework for a story. If you look at all of the film images that make up an overall quilt pattern in my work, you can interpret those narrative threads an infinite number of ways.
AL Do you hold yourself to any rules?
SG Not really. If I choose a pattern and then I find myself needing a light-colored piece of film, I’ll leave one film I’m working with to cull from another film that provides the color and content I need.
AL Do you watch a film and then make notes about light and dark colors?
SG Yeah, and once I have little bits and ends I organize them by color.
AL Oh, that’s very cool. Do you feel that the content of the films is equally important?
SG Yes. In putting pieces together into an overall pattern, I’m playing not just with color but also with the content of the film. I’m thinking about the overall story, and the scenes that I have. These scenes get put together in a way that’s three-dimensional instead of time-based.
AL That’s a good point. Three-dimensional instead of time-based. . . even though the time is made three-dimensional, time is made literal.
SG Time is made literal, because you can count 24 frames as a second. And there’s the time a viewer takes to look at it, or watch it, or read it (I think all three verbs apply here). But I can give you a specific example of how I make a piece based on content and color decisions.
Camouflage, the biggest piece in the show, uses a documentary film about the Bradford Dyeing Association, which was one of the oldest textile mills in the country and the largest supplier of camouflage for the U.S. military for many years. The film shows how fabric was produced and dyed at the mill, and it paints a happy portrait of textile workers, but the mill had a record of labor law abuses and environmental pollution. I paired that film with another educational film called Shadows, Shadows Everywhere which teaches children how shadows are made. It’s a very sweet film in which a boy and girl make shadow puppets in front of a piece of cloth and then go outside to look at shadows created by the sun. I used the shadow film, which had actually faded to a sweet shade of pink, to underscore the shadowy and darker aspects of the factory film. Together they represent different forms of concealment—the camouflage fabric being made in the factory, the factory conditions that were camouflaged in the film, and the fact that whenever a documentary is made, certain things are brought to light and other things are hidden or excluded. The overall quilt is constructed out of log cabin squares that are sewn together to make alternating peaks of light and dark, which look like beams of sunlight making shadows.
AL I was going to show you this Paul Sharits book and ask you a question. I mean, I don’t want to get caught up on him, but he was trained as a painter and his films experienced on screen at 18 or 24 frames per second are an endless explosion of colors that are never quite one color; it goes so fast. In one second, with 24 frames, you might have seven or eight colors varying, so your eye can’t actually perceive it. When you look at Sharits’s film strips as objects, as linear rolls, you can really see these larger compositions. In his Frozen Film Frames he would take a piece of film like Color Sound Frames, make a print, and then cut it into strip strips.
SG And how were they attached to each other?
AL I’m not sure. I’ve never seen any glue or residue in them and it’s not like it’s such an airtight seal, so I’m not quite sure how he did it. The one thing in looking at them is that, in spite being turned canvas-sized rectangles, they are linear. They keep the same order as they would as projected reels. And that’s what strikes me so much about your work—in Sharits’s, the narrative view, even if it’s an abstract narrative, is still—
SG Relying on the way it would have been projected.
AL Absolutely. Your pieces are a new form of projection. They offer us new opportunities to see films in ways that traditional forms of projection won’t allow us. I think of them as expanded cinema. Sharits’ pieces, as beautiful as they are, didn’t push into this multi-directional territory—he kind of just reframed them, if you will.
SG I remember something Valie Export said about expanded cinema. She said that in expanded cinema, film is split up into its formal components and put back together in a new way. What I think makes my work different from the Sharits work you’re describing is that I’m splitting up the components of film by taking out the projection and replacing a traditional, physical kind of linearity, with a multilinear, three-dimensional quilt. It relates film to the sphere of activity that’s been called “women’s work,” and relates film editing to a form of handcraft.
AL And of course the earliest editors of films were women.
SG Right, women were hired because they had nimble fingers from sewing. Something that isn’t talked about much is how in Hollywood a lot of editors are women because of this tactile history.
AL Sure, even if they’re not the primary editor, there are so many assistant editors and other positions in the process.
SG Right. I’m thinking about telling a story through film as fabric but Sharits's pieces seem to be literal translations of the films, put into a framework that’s recognizable as painting. My works reference quilts, and beds, and curtains (when I’ve installed them in windows). I really love the window display because it brings the transparency of the film into play. For my first film quilt show I made three large pieces that were installed on windows, and you could look through them while you looked at them. I wanted to propose the question, What is it like to look at history while looking through history? What does the world outside of this art institution look like when viewed through these historical images?
Because of the way that light came in through the windows, color was projected on the floor and onto the people who were looking at the work. Going back to the idea of expanded cinema, if the components are split up and then put back together, then I think the quilts make the person a screen in a very literal way. Which is maybe related to Valie’s work—how people could touch her. Her body was the screen.
AL I want to talk about the more scientific nature of the project. Color in these films is subject to fading and, with exposure to light, continual color shift. So the color, which you chose and intended on the day of creation, will change. How are you thinking about that in the construction of these works?
SG I’ve framed the quilts with LEDs, because that’s the longest lasting, coolest source of light, and therefore the most stable, archival framing solution. When I did the show in Sweden that I just mentioned, the pieces were hung on windows and backlit by the sun for three and a half months during the summer. The sunlight bleached two of the pieces—they turned from pink to yellow, and I thought that was really interesting.
SG It’s like the pieces were baked in the Swedish sun.
AL And when you have sold them to, say, a museum, or an institution that has in their contract policies about the care of the object, how or do you acknowledge that it is impermanent? The construction of it and selling of it is permanent, but the color is—
SG Contemporary art is made of such varied kinds of materials at this point that museums are pretty understanding that artworks may transform over time. I recently took a tour of Workt By Hand, a quilt show at the Brooklyn Museum, and the curator said the museum decided not to repair some of the pieces that were fraying. But other museums might decide to go in and replace fabrics in fraying quilts.
AL Yeah, it’s a case-by-case basis, I would imagine. I was once with these collectors who, besides art, collect a lot of ephemera, including Dada and Surrealist publications. Just an incredible amount of it. They’ll let you touch them. They’re there to be handled. I asked them, Aren’t you worried about these? Since you have such a substantial collection, what’s the long-term plan with it? The response was, If it lasts two hundred years that’ll be great. Which I thought was so anti-museological, but correct in a way. You wouldn’t want every copy of a magazine published by Andre Breton to be lost by bad care and mishandling, but what’s worse, going to a museum and looking at an object in a vitrine where you can hardly look at it, or the ability to be able to handle it?
There are so many possibilities if you were to—narratively speaking—stick with one film, a feature. And strategies you come up with could get you back closer and closer, even though it’s a physical object, to structural filmmaking ideas and techniques.
SG I studied structuralist film and I really love it. On the other hand, my impulse here was to preserve the content and the imagery. That’s really a quilting impulse: preserve and reuse.
AL The problem with most experimental films that deal with structuralism—and the ones that are great obviously transcend this, but in a lot of students of the greats, and just second-tier downwards work—is that it’s a ten-minute film and you recognize the structure, you recognize what’s going on, and by the time it finishes you’re just sitting there. It’s almost like a conceptual idea that’s so perfect written on a page, that it begs the question, Why do it? When the result won’t be as idealized as the premise.
SG The preservation of these images is really in the foreground of the work. We’re the generation wherein films from previous generations are just getting trashed. Receiving this box of discarded material gave me an opportunity to preserve it, and to ask people to look at it and reflect on what they might value, in terms of both the material and its content, through a physical experience.
AL Well I’m glad you said that, and we’ll sort of wrap up on this, because it goes in tandem with preservation of a film: you can take the most popular film and preserve it, or you can take something that’s truly obscure and preserve it. Somewhere in the process you, as an arbitrator of this, claim that there’s a historic, aesthetic, or social value of it that necessitates it over hundreds of millions of other films or objects needing to exist in the long-term, whatever that may be for us. . . five hundred years, two hundred years. The films that you’ve worked with are arguably a body of films that the institution that was caring for them didn’t want, couldn’t keep, or didn’t need, so they were given to you. So preservation at its most basic level is not just letting something be thrown away as a form of conservation—because it may yellow, it may red, it may fade—but it’s there, the information has been kept. And what you’re doing in your piece by refabricating these things into another form is creating access.
And in your case, there’s so much time you break down, and you can capture something that no one would sit through, and present it. Nobody tells you how long to look at a painting, or how long to look at a quilt. Your pieces really successfully deal with the notion of what it is to save and collect, but also to share, and how to create access to things, which are difficult to understand out of context.
For more on Sabrina Gshwandtner, please visit her website.
The majority of Andrew Lampert’s daily activities revolve around making films and videos, staging performances, being the Curator of Collections at Anthology Film Archives and teaching at Purchase College. He also spends a lot of time reading the Moomins with his daughter, Zazie.