Live presence is not often considered to be a part of cinema, but Karl Lemieux thinks it should be. Using 16mm projectors as his principal tools, the Montreal-based artist employs various tactics to manipulate both the film material and apparatus itself during the act of projection—an approach that results in a distortion of the image. Tapping into the history of expanded cinema, Lemieux sees the moment of projection as the primary site of production. Using multiple projectors, he paints onto film, adjusts the frame rate, and refracts the image by placing glass bowls in front of the lens. While his approach is certainly hands-on, its acceptance of chance means some of the results are out of his hands. His audiences bear witness to cinema in the making.
Lemieux’s live, improvised collaborations with sound artists and musicians testify to his dedication to correspondence: the artists respond to the setting, to the moment, and to each other. Working with Swedish composer and sound artist BJ Nilsen, Lemieux shot footage on the border between Russia and Norway. This would be the basis of their collaborative performance, unearthed, presented at the 2015 Sonic Acts Festival in Amsterdam. As co-founder of Montreal’s Double Negative Collective, Lemieux’s support for collaboration extends beyond his own artistic output. Together with experimental filmmaker Daïchi Saïto, he has established a film lab and network for avant-garde cinema that has become a resounding voice for filmmaking dedicated to independence.
While often abrasive, Lemieux’s cinema also has a generosity that allows for open interpretation and a space for thoughts to meander. In his film Quiet Zone (2015), co-directed by musician David Bryant (Hiss Tracts & Godspeed You! Black Emperor), this delicacy is applied to a documentary subject who has a severe case of electromagnetic sensitivity. While the space that surrounds her is animated by film processing techniques, her voice and features remain untouched. Screening at Sonic Acts, where this year’s theme is “The Geological Imagination” and many works engage with human impact on the Earth, Quiet Zone reminds us of our fragility as individuals under the enormity of change we have brought about.
Julian Ross Can you describe your approach to collaboration in unearthed?
Karl Lemieux Since working with film, I’ve done a lot of things with the moving image—different film formats, film installations, and quite a bit of projection performance. At first, the idea was to approach the projector as a musical instrument. I’ve always had many friends who were musicians that got together to jam, and I’d often visit when they’re jamming and just sit there. At some point, I decided there must be a way to join these jams with the film projector—the tool that I know best. I’ve always been fascinated with the mechanical apparatus of the reel-to-reel projector. After having this idea for a long time, I began seeing people doing such performances. I saw Montreal-based Pierre Hébert’s live-scratch animations and was very impressed. Although his work tended more toward figurative and narrative structures than I would later go on to do, it was very inspiring. It sparked something in me, and I started working with a projector.
Regarding collaboration, it’s a very special thing to have dialogue with people without words. I started improvising with noise musicians in basements, small venues, underground shows with only a few audience members. I never imagined I’d be performing in Amsterdam for an event like Sonic Acts. I met Benny [BJ Nilsen] some years ago in Montreal, where we decided to jam. Since then, we’ve performed together a couple of times. As for unearthed, Sonic Acts commissioned Benny to do field recordings in the border zone between Norway and Russia and perform the work for the festival. He invited me to join the excursion and participate in the piece. The idea was to perform live, both with his field recordings and the film material I had shot in the same location.
In terms of the presentation itself, I used five 16mm projectors side-by-side with some overlapping. When I first started performing with the film projector, I used to work with one frame and overlap the projections. Then when I started performing with Godspeed You! Black Emperor I used two side-by-side projections, before switching for another project to a triptych presentation. Now, I use five projectors that run horizontally like a panorama strip. In a sense, unearthed was a continuation of these shifts, but with film material I had shot especially for this commissioned piece.
JR How much of the performance was preconceived?
KL What’s interesting with performance is that nothing is fixed until it is screened. I can change anything at any moment. I always try to prepare as much as I can, but some things work better than others when you actually get into the room and start setting up. I try to remain open until the very end. Especially with analogue film equipment, the gear doesn’t react the same way when the projectors are rented. As such, you need to stay flexible, which is an aspect I like. Another thing I like about performance work is that you get to go outside of your workshop. While animation and experimental film often involve a lot of solitary work, performances, on the other hand, allow you to respond to the energy and feedback of the live environment—for better or worse. When you fuck it up, it can be harsh, but when you have a good moment it can be very special.
As part of Dark Ecology, a research excursion set up by Sonic Acts, we went to the Arctic Circle in the northern regions of Russia, which is a country that I had never visited. Questions on pollution and ecology have long been concerns of mine, and I had the opportunity to travel to an extremely polluted region and reflect on ecology with refined thinkers. It was unique. We’ve been born into an unfair generation, and we’re dealing with so many ecological problems of previous generations. There’s a lot of cleaning and thinking we’re going to have to do, and it was great to spend time with a group of people with similar artistic, political, and ethical sensibilities.
JR Pollution doesn’t always have the materiality of objects—it can be relatively invisible but nevertheless extremely present. How did you approach filming it?
KL Of course, there is the striking industrial landscape. I’ve always been fond of such spaces—even the noise, for that matter. I grew up in front of a Styrofoam factory, which was a very noisy environment. In the summer, we couldn’t even open our front windows because it was too noisy. I’ve recently been reflecting on why I’m so fond of noise music and find it so reassuring, and I’ve realized it’s probably because I grew up in a noisy place. Industrial landscapes consist of strange architectural shapes—the technical structures exist for very functional reasons, which gives them those very strange shapes and proportions. But to answer your question, I’m not sure how well it translates, but I hope there’s an impression of a space and something I captured over there. I trusted my instincts to bring this experience into the piece.
JR Did you get the field recordings by BJ Nilsen in advance?
KL He released the recordings as part of the Sonic Acts book, The Geologic Imagination, which was published in December 2014, and I had to prepare some images for it. I had already heard the recordings quite a number of times before the performance, often on a loop when I was working on the material. BJ Nilsen is an incredible composer! Even though Benny had seen the selected images for the publication, he had not seen the moving images before it was performed. It must’ve been a thrill for him to discover them while he was performing.
JR Similar to this idea of making pollution visible, your film Quiet Zone attempts to show electromagnetic radiation that is invisible to the human eye.
KL The film is about people with electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS)—in this case, especially to radiation produced by mobile phone communications and Wi-Fi. I used a hand-processing technique that transformed the film images in ways that appeared to give visible presence to what is invisible. It started to make a lot of sense with the subject. For the most part, the film was shot like a traditional documentary. Although we didn’t use talking heads, we conducted interviews, shot portraits, and filmed in the area. After the shoot, I worked in the dark room and reprocessed the film.
JR Quiet Zone was a collaboration with David Bryant, who is a musician, and you’re both listed as co-directors. How did the collaboration work? Did you allocate roles?
KL We had been talking about working together for quite some time. We just didn’t have the subject to be our gateway. David stumbled across an article about people who got ill with electromagnetic radiation. After he told me about it, I became very interested and immediately submitted the project to the National Film Board of Canada, with whom I’ve worked before. I proposed something to them that they had never done before. I asked if David and I could co-direct the film. In traditional films, the soundtrack is made when everything else is finished, but we wanted David to be part of the project from the very beginning. Although he was mostly working on sound and I was mostly working on the image, we wrote the film together. We went to West Virginia, to the United States National Radio Quiet Zone, on three different occasions over two-and-a-half years to meet with the subjects of the film. The film ended up focusing on Nicols, whom we met three times and interviewed twice. As the National Film Board of Canada has never given a composer the position of co-director, I’m very grateful to our producer Julie Roy to have given us this opportunity.
JR How is it working with a person as a subject? Often your images include buildings or abstracted forms, but Quiet Zone has a central subject and protagonist.
KL The human presence is very striking. This is why I brought the human face into the equation at the end of the performance for unearthed, which had mostly comprised of a polluted landscape. It was something I found interesting as a contrast. In the final moments, I melted the image by freezing the frame while the projector is still running, which made the human face look chemically distorted.
JR How do you feel manipulating images with a face on it? Especially in the case of the protagonist of Quiet Zone, Nicols, who you know not only as a subject of your film but also as a person. It must be quite different to how you approach landscapes and cityscapes.
KL Definitely. In the case of Quiet Zone, it’s a touching and delicate subject. It was extremely generous of Nicols to share her stories with us. The last thing we wanted to do was to show and present this material in a disrespectful way. We had some beautiful shots that we decided not to include—some scenes, for example, where the alternative film-processing technique distorted her face and somehow made her appear strange. There’s a shot at the end of the film where everything in the frame has been chemically transformed—except, thankfully, her face. All these waves appear around her hands while she’s typing, and up her arms and neck, but there’s nothing on her face. I was very happy about that accident. The beauty of her face is unchanged, but the world surrounding her is in flux—the aura around her body is still felt.
JR You also perform as part of Godspeed You! Black Emperor with David Bryant, who is another band member. Not only do you work with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but you’ve worked with many other bands and musicians like Hiss Tracts, Philip Jeck, and The Black Keys. Do you have a pool of images for each band?
KL There’s definitely material that I don’t mix. But there’s also material I use for every project. I’ve started to build an archive of textures and rhythms. I don’t mind reusing and transforming material I’ve used in other contexts. For a long time, I didn’t even name my performances. I just brought my instrument like a free-jazz musician and jammed with musicians.
Since then, I’ve changed my practice quite a bit. At the beginning, it was all about destruction. I would often not be able to re-perform the performance because I would destroy not only the copies but also the film negative. It was literally a public sacrifice of the material. Turning back was impossible. Now, I do things differently, and I archive everything. I keep the film negative of all the material I shoot in order to make sure I can reprint. Nevertheless, you can never get the same print twice.
JR In the 1960s, expanded cinema was often performed with bands and in clubs. Many of these artists not only considered their work as film projection but also as light projection. I suppose it interconnected with the emerging movement of light art. Do you also see your work as light projection?
KL I’ve been trying to trace how I ended up doing performance. I lived for a year in Nevada, and I was driving to school with a family for a year. The father of this family had been a close friend of Lou Reed and the projectionist for the Velvet Underground. Although I was already fascinated with experimental film, it was very exciting for me to hear about when he’d scratch, paint, and punch holes into the film during the band’s performance. I told myself I’d try that one day. It ended up taking a while, and it’s funny to think that, years later, I make a living using the exact same tools in very similar ways.
Although the projections can be used as light rhythms, they still use cinematographic language; it still involves framing and consideration for the length of shots. When I perform the projector is not only a machine for film projection but also a producer of sounds. Even though I don’t use it as a music instrument, I have to be careful. The projector makes a lot of noise. There are moments in a performance where I’d feel awkward stopping or loading the projector. Even though it’s a visual tool, there’s a strong element of sound. When I’m in a small room, like a gallery space, I have to listen out for quiet moments. I have to stay tuned because I feed a lot from what I hear when I perform.
JR I feel that sensitivity with your collaboration with Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Of course, the scale of the projection is much bigger than the band members, but I never feel like it overwhelms their stage presence. It doesn’t take over the visual experience of watching a band perform. There’s a delicacy to it.
KL In most cases, the ceiling is high enough for the screen, which is ten meters wide and six meters tall, to hang above the band. But, in some cases, I have to project onto the band because the space isn’t big enough. The focus point is completely on the band; the audience wouldn’t alternate between the projection and the band members. But then it gets pretty intense for the band members, who would receive flickering light onto their faces for two hours.
JR How important is scale for you?
KL It’s funny how something can look big in one space but small in another. Godspeed You! Black Emperor was touring with Nine Inch Nails in October 2013. What looked big in a 1,200-capacity theatre looked small in an arena.
I used a five-projector setup first in a white-box gallery. I was projecting onto the entirety of the wall with the five projections. It felt huge relative to the scale of the room. Even though it was only a small concert with sixty people, it felt gigantic. It was loud as well. The performance of unearthed at Muziekgebouw, Amsterdam, felt smaller, though the screen was much bigger.
JR You go on long tours with Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Does the projection change between performances?
KL It’s never the same. On the 2010–2011 tour, we did so many shows that, by the end, it basically became choreography. It became interesting for me, as I had to focus to pick up on cues from the musicians. I had to keep an eye on the drummer and wait for the drumsticks to go up—which is also a signal for the rest of the band—and I’d put on all four projectors at the same time. But when you start manipulating the image with live distortion and destruction, it becomes impossible to do the same thing twice.
JR Can you describe the manipulations that are possible in a live environment, and which techniques you prefer using?
KL It’s a simple tool in a way. It’s a bit like a turntable, a playback machine, but with many things to do. You can work on the actual film during projection—destroy the material or add scratches like Pierre Hébert. There’s also everything you can do around the projector, especially in front of the lens using filters or light distortions. Ken Jacobs, for example, uses extra shutters in front of the lens. Bruce McClure uses dimmers to change the intensity of the light bulb and modifies the film gate of the projector. In such ways, you can open up new possibilities. For a long time, I concentrated on working on the film itself during projection, but recently I’ve focused on activities around the lens for the simple reason that I couldn’t keep breaking projectors. I lost too many. It came to a point where I realized they’re getting harder to find, and I have to take good care of the ones that I have.
JR We’ve talked a lot about the projection, but can you speak about the film shoots that you go on? When you go on a tour, do you set aside a few days to make sure you have enough material to project?
KL I used to collect every single piece of film I could find. Even though I wasn’t a student at the time, I used to go to Concordia University and steal material from the trim bin. Everything from black-and-white stock, color stock, white leader and black leader. I’d separate them into compartments. Since then, I’ve got involved in projects that have given me the luxury to shoot my own material. That’s much more fun. I rarely use found footage anymore, and, when I do, I use the printed material as raw material, onto which I animate or make changes. For Godspeed You! Black Emperor, I also use material that was shot by Efrim Menuck and Jem Cohen.
JR Other than your European tour with Godspeed You! Black Emperor, what have you got planned for the rest of the year?
KL I’m now working on a new 35mm short film that I shot in March in abandoned cities in China. This new piece is also a collaboration with BJ Nilsen. Also, I’m shooting my first feature-length film produced by Metafilms in the fall of 2015.
Karl Lemieux is performing with Godspeed You! Black Emperor in the coming months at Sled Island Festival, ATP Iceland, Benicassim Festival, and Hopscotch Music Festival. Quiet Zone (2015), co-directed with David Bryant, screens at the 69th Edinburgh International Film Festival.