A Surface of Circulation: Lewis Klahr Interviewed by Courtney Stephens

The artist-filmmaker on his prescient collage film, featuring the jetsam and flotsam of global supply chains and a prophecy of the coming pandemic.

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Lewis Klahr, still from Capitalist Roaders, the first in a six-part film cycle titled Circumstantial Pleasures, 2012–19. Courtesy of the artist.

Since the late 1980s, Los Angeles-based filmmaker Lewis Klahr has been creating collage films set in the American unconscious. Recombining the scraps and detritus of the twentieth century into prescient, often uncanny new forms, his films reveal the mythic strength of past media. Klahr’s most recent work, Circumstantial Pleasures (a cycle of six short films), is a clear departure. Instead of comic-book protagonists and domestic encounters, the viewer is immersed in a lexicon of the global present. Residues of foreign production alongside generic security patterns point to a new set of idioms, driven less by the textures of cultural vernacular than the textures of automation.

Capitalist Roaders, the first film in the cycle, is viewable below. Its title references a Maoist China accusation against those who would undermine the revolution through their bourgeois, capitalist leanings.

—Courtney Stephens

Courtney StephensThere’s something uncanny about the iconography in your film—the figures in hazmat suits, the cellular drawings of germs, the superimposition of the cargo ship over a pharmacy shelf of pill bottles. The images speak directly to the current moment, but the film as a whole seems to be concerned with something larger: the human systems that preceded the pandemic, the very ones that carried the virus around the world.

Lewis KlahrYeah, Circumstantial Pleasures has a lot more on its mind than the virus. I began shooting in 2012 and completed the film in summer 2019, when there wasn’t even a hint of COVID-19. I was definitely thinking about global supply chains that are normally out of sight but have now, as you note, gained visibility as this invisible pathogen has traveled along the same pathways. The current crisis certainly has brought to life aspects of the imagery that, just a few months before, didn’t and couldn’t have had the same impact. They’ve been injected with a new sense of—

CS Currency?

LK Perfect word. Some relevant background: In 2007 I made a piece called Antigenic Drift, which was my first digital collage film. It was inspired by a frightening article in The New Yorker about the inevitability of pandemics. This article described “antigenic drift,” which is the name scientists have given to the process by which viruses replicate themselves and mutate to stay viable in partially immune populations. I was attracted to that idea, not only for what it said about pandemics but also for how it related to collage—source materials migrating from their original contexts and recontextualizing themselves into fresh contexts, while still retaining part of their original history.

Antigenic Drift barely got screened; nobody was interested in how harsh and frightening it was. Likewise, Circumstantial Pleasures got nothing but rejections last summer and fall, because the urgency of what it so abrasively describes makes for a challenging experience that isn’t about entertainment value. However, Thomas Beard and Ed Halter of Light Industry got it, and by the time Circumstantial Pleasures premiered there this February, on the eve of the COVID crisis, it was like a switch had been pulled. The audience was completely receptive. The harshness was no longer off-putting. As Ken Jacobs put it during the Q&A that night, “Your film is right on time!”

CS At that screening, film scholar Tom Gunning described the film as a “surface of circulation,” which posits a system that can’t develop. It can only run in place and incorporate new customers.

LK Which helps explain why American capitalism is faring so poorly in the current crisis. I keep seeing the way the pandemic foregrounds the absurdity and limitations of money as an agreed-upon social fiction. Far too many people in power in the United States, especially on the right, treat capitalism like it’s a self-correcting, natural system. But then a problem like this arises and capitalism doesn’t react, because it doesn’t have empathy; people do. Capitalism has no motive besides profit. It can’t and won’t acquire a conscience until people forcefully demand that it does.

CS Right, the logic seems to be that the system can’t handle this, so let’s reboot the system anyway and let people die to salvage it.

Can we talk about characters in the films? We experience encounters, fissures, but mostly between objects rather than people.

LK I knew I didn’t want people to function as characters that one followed; I didn’t want them to be protagonists in a story. I was more interested in a general sequence of progressions, accumulations, and associative montage that describes the contemporary zeitgeist. There’s a two-shot juxtaposition in the title film that’s worth detailing: We see a nightscape where an oil barrel on a hand cart exits and is replaced by two white, latex-gloved hands that cradle an uncapped vial of dark liquid that looks like oil. This takes place in front of a designer office building that evokes a Greek temple. In the following shot, a young woman from an ad licks at some kind of dark syrup that has dripped down her face. The previous shot suggests this could be oil. As she descends through the frame, we see that her close-cropped hair is completely covered in the syrup. She exits, and an aerial view is revealed of suburban tract housing and offices.

The situation of this young woman is quite specific, but since she never appears again she’s not so much an individual as she is part of a link in the chain of consumption. These figures are very small and powerless. I feel completely identified with them. It’s like, I’m just one tiny person with an insanely limited perspective, trying to imagine this gigantic system of distribution and consumption that I will never get my mind around. Like you said, the delivery systems drive the film forward. You watch the objects; the goods become the protagonists.

CS What is pronounced is how many of these objects are packaging for other objects: discarded blister packs, security envelopes, pill foils—the things between things. It reinforces this sense of small parts, the anti-status of these disposables. Even the “this page intentionally left blank” sheets, to which we just say, “Ok, not for me.”

LK Yeah, there’s a catalog of messages that are inaccessible or irrelevant to the purchaser, the receiver. They’re only relevant to people involved in various aspects of production and distribution.

CS They are ruptures in a way, but weirdly also invisible. They are messages without meaning.

LKWe’re so used to them, and they’re hiding in plain sight, but we’re not supposed to see them, only the products and services they contain. Though now we have this ecological catastrophe around plastics and other refuse, because for far too long the packaging was invisible, and we ignored how it multiplied.

CS Was this something guiding you when you started collecting materials, these empty husks?

LK Very much so. In the early 2000s, I started to collect them. I realized that I had a very fuzzy idea of what the contemporary world was, partly because I’d spent so much time mucking around in the past. I had this epiphanic moment with an article I read that listed the most populous cities in the world; four or five of them were in China, and I’d never heard of any of them! In the bulk of my films, I’ve used outmoded imagery from my childhood or from the twentieth century before I was born to explore the interpenetration of the past and present. But by using packaging for contemporary products as source material, I started to shift my emphasis toward the present tense.

CS This insistent presentness makes the films feel almost algorithmic. Does this replace narrative in some way?

LK Yeah, it was really a sea change for me, because normally my features do involve some form of narrative—they explore the different gradients and opacities of narrative. They are often elliptical, smudged, if you will; but the feeling of story and character is present, even if their expositional particularities remain oblique. But as I worked on this film cycle, anytime I tried to insert story it wouldn’t take. The final film of the series, the title film, Circumstantial Pleasures, is set to Scott Walker’s opus SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter). The song’s lyrics do suggest a story, or at least toxic relationships between specific characters. I thought I might be able to finally depict a narrative, but even there I couldn’t.

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Lewis Klahr, still from Capitalist Roaders, the first in a six-part film cycle titled Circumstantial Pleasures, 2012–19. Courtesy of the artist.

CS Do you feel the film accesses genre in any way, despite its generic materials? There’s a definite sense of paranoia that hangs over it.

LK Sounds like you’re seeing through my filter, which is deeply anxious about the world—part of my Jewish heritage. This paranoia is also partially evoked by the music; David Rosenboom’s and Tom Recchion’s instrumental compositions are highly tactile—one rubs the fingers of one’s ears over their texture. But, more importantly, I think you are experiencing Circumstantial Pleasures as paranoid because you’re inserting yourself inside it. There’s a way the film becomes first person, and you, the viewer, become the protagonist. You’ve entered its world and populated its vacuum seal with your own subjectivity.

CS Right, and there’s that Kafkaesque horror of having no influence on your own outcome, just being destined for some mechanism.

LKCircumstantial Pleasures does something with horror films too, genre-wise, because you’re waiting. That’s one of the central coordinates of tension pulling you through a horror film, right? This anxiety about what’s coming next. Pretty bleak. I never meant for it to be entertaining, and at some level I don’t care whether anyone likes it or not, just that it offers an experience that impacts. In that way it aligns with the transgressive side of my work, although most of those films are highly sexual, while Circumstantial Pleasures, despite “pleasures” in the title, is not.

CS In the end, do you find any sort of romance inside all this?

LK Well, there is beauty and poetry inside its light and rhythm, but it’s a hard-edged kind of beauty. The light is hard even when it’s soft. The cuts are hard. There are more pop-ins and outs of single images within the duration of a shot than I normally use. I do think some of the packaging is very beautiful. There are things that I came to love in different ways, but that doesn’t mean I like them. They had descriptive use value.

Ultimately these works were demanding and very difficult to create. There were times when I’d think they were done, screen them publicly, and watch them come apart at the seams, realizing they needed major overhauls, that they hadn’t gotten at what I was trying to describe. I think all this volatility relates to how rapidly the world has been changing over the last decade. I read about William Gibson and the delayed release of his latest novel, and he described experiencing something similar—how volatile the world is right now, how quickly descriptions of it can seem out of date. Fortunately, as I learned during that fateful screening at the end of February, Circumstantial Pleasures is definitely not out of date. Now when people ask me that inevitable question all artists are now asked—“How are you responding in your art to COVID-19?”—I get to say, “I already have!”

The full-length Circumstantial Pleasures will be streaming via the Wexner Center for the Arts from May 29 to June 19, with an online Q&A with the artist on June 5 at 8:00 PM EST, hosted by Wexner Associate Film/Video Curator Chris Stults and Courtney Stephens.

Courtney Stephens is a nonfiction filmmaker whose recent film, The American Sector, with Pacho Velez, visits fragments of the Berlin Wall scattered across the United States.

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