Ed Halter and Thomas Beard. All images copyright Braden King, 2012. Courtesy the artist.
In late March, I went to the Whitney Biennial to see a screening of Nathaniel Dorsky’s films: 2010’s Compline, Aubade, and last year’s The Return. Dorsky was present, and watched his work with a packed audience, sitting down afterwards with Halter for a deeply thoughtful and humorous Q&A. The filmmaker referenced many of the ideas he wrote about in his book, Devotional Cinema, specifically, the alchemy that occurs when light on film is aligned with a subject matter of true purpose. Dorsky recalled his early, pre-internet days in 1960s New York with longtime partner and contemporary Jerome Hiler—“everyone existed in actual sunlight and space, went to places and met each other”—and how very quickly he realized that Hiler was “making the screen into something sculptural. The screen itself became something through the image projected on it. It had shape, it had weight.” He then asked: “Do you think its possible to make a film that opens up for it’s own needs? It’s not describing some space other than itself—but it itself becomes the place?”
Dorsky’s sublime, immersive works were chosen alongside filmmakers who also engage with the medium on such levels: Charles Atlas, George Kuchar, Laura Poitras, Kelly Reichardt and Michael Robinson. While this list might appear disparate, the connection is their immediacy. With their encyclopaedic and effervescent love of cinema, Halter and Beard’s curation reinforces a focus on the moving image as experience, from the filmmaker all the way round to the viewer. Both have extensive backgrounds in programming: Halter ran the New York Underground Film Festival from 1995-2005, has curated for MoMA and the Tate Modern, while writing for Artforum, The Believer, the Village Voice and teaching at Bard; Beard worked at Cinematexas and Ocularis, curated “The Unfinished Film” at Barbara Gladstone Gallery last year, and also, with Halter, organized an ongoing series for Artists Space.
The photographs in this article were taken at 155 Freeman on April 5, 2012, after the interview, by director Braden King, on a vintage Polaroid 690 with original Polaroid stock, leftover from the 200 packs purchased to document and extend his own film project, HERE, opening in Los Angeles on April 27 and in San Francisco on May 11.
Alex Zafiris Light Industry is the perfect name. How did you two come together?
I was working at a film festival in Austin—Cinematexas—which is now defunct. Ed would come out there, and people from Austin would go to New York Underground; in 2004, they sent me. We met in the lobby of Anthology Film Archives. Light Industry grows out of all of the work that we’ve done up to that point with film exhibition: whether it was showing movies in the back of a bar, or at MoMA. When I first moved to New York, I had this ‘if you show it, they will come’ attitude. I was 21 years old. I thought: if I show this incredible Werner Schroeter film that hasn’t been seen in New York in over a decade, people will flock to it! J Hoberman wrote a little thing about it in the Voice, saying Schroeter was the missing link between Fassbinder and Jack Smith. J Hoberman was one of my heroes—I was so thrilled. Five people showed up.
Ed Halter That was at Ocularis.
TB I was running their screening series in Williamsburg. Last month at Light Industry, we did a double bill of Jennifer Reeves’s Chronic and Sadie Benning’s Flat Is Beautiful. The last time that Flat is Beautiful was shown in New York is when I showed it over five years ago, and again, there were five people. I showed the same film, but in a different context. We had to lock the door because there were too many people. So in the time from when I first moved here to now, I certainly figured something out.
AZ What’s changed?
EH It’s complicated. Thomas is also talking about a specific venue. When I was working at the New York Underground Film Festival, in the 90s and 00s, Ocularis was the most important place in Brooklyn that was showing cinema, in the most interesting ways. But I think by the time he took it over, that part of Williamsburg no longer felt as amenable to that kind of work.
TB If you’re dealing with lesser known or challenging work, your task as a curator is to cultivate the audience to make an argument for the work.
EH My experience is a little different. New York Underground was an enormously popular festival, but it was operating in different times. The internet wasn’t as important to promoting the event. We used traditional promotion—print ads, a publicist. By the last few years of the festival, a lot of those things started dropping away. For Light Industry, our promotion is minimal: an email list, Facebook, Twitter, word of mouth. There is a huge strength to the weekly series: you can build an audience over time. It’s unlike a festival, where you roll up all of your work into one week, and you’re hoping there won’t be thunderstorms.
TB The key precursors to Light Industry don’t just involve things that Ed and I were working on, but actually go back to the little cinemas of the 1920s and ’30s amateur film clubs, Amos and Marcia Vogel’s legendary film society Cinema 16, and Frank Stauffacher’s Art in Cinema series in San Francisco. People like Jonas Mekas, and the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque. The event that was the kick in the ass to form Light Industry was a show at Orchard Gallery in 2007, about the Collective for Living Cinema, a venue which ran from the late 70s through the early 90s. It was one of the key alternative cinemas in New York. It arose at a time when the city needed a venue like that, responding to a perceived lack of exhibition space.
EH Another thing that really inspired us was the eclecticism of that collective. It was a conscious effort on their part, in response to what Anthology Film Archives was like at that time, when it had retreated to showing the Essential Cinema and not much else.
TB Anthology’s very different now.
EH Yeah, it’s very different now. But at the time, that was the perception. So a younger generation had come in and was inspired by the eclecticism of Ken Jacobs’ classes. They’d show contemporary experimental work, alongside features by Oscar Micheaux and local independent filmmaking, for example. These things would all be on the same bill, and made an argument about what cinema could be. Arguing for a certain view of the possibilities of cinema is one of the things we’ve carried over in the most central way to Light Industry. Creating a crossroads between these different worlds of the moving image: the academy, independent feature filmmaking, international filmmaking, experimental films. New York is such a fertile community for so many kinds of ways of thinking about the moving image as a form of art. But even though people might go to Anthology, Lincoln Center, or a gallery that’s showing an installation, we noticed that these worlds didn’t overlap as much as you would think—although a lot of works do have formal affinities, and ways of talking to one another. The culture has definitely shifted, probably most remarkably in the relationship between the art world, and the world of the moving image, in the last five years.
AZ You’re anchoring it all with your space, and now your curation at the Biennial.
TB It is a project that, in a way, extends beyond Light Industry. The Biennial’s film program is very much a reflection of this interest, bringing together different kinds of work that we think belong together, and should be considered alongside one another, yet all too rarely are.
EH The art world in general has embraced the moving image, but only certain kinds. Specifically, work made by people native to the art world. Or, adopted. Take Robert Beavers. It’s wonderful that he has currency in the art world. But he’s just one amazing filmmaker from a world of amazing filmmakers, many of whom don’t have the same currency, and to me it seems a little arbitrary. At the same time, whole kinds of filmmaking aren’t brought into the conversation, like lets say—as we do at the Biennial—documentary, and feature filmmaking. People like Kelly Reichardt, and Laura Poitras. There is this conversation going on about ‘the documentary’ as a mode of art, and I’m thinking well, let’s show a documentary.
TB Its important to point out, too, that with the Biennial’s film program, it’s not just eclecticism for eclecticism’s sake. It’s a time when, increasingly, visual artists are working with film and video, and drawing upon the codes, conventions, and visual grammar of documentary, or narrative cinema. It makes sense that you think about these things together. If you have a situation in which artists are making fly-on-the-wall observational non-fiction, and portraits of a subject on film, then Frederick Wiseman certainly should be included.
EH To be honest, there’s a bit of critique happening as well, in a subtle way. The art world has an insiderness about whom it’s talking about, in terms of the moving image. An artist might say, ’I’m going to experiment with narrative in film.’ It’s like, well—that has been going on for a century. Kelly Reichardt is one of the more recent people who really thinks about how narratives and characters are constructed, how you move a story forward, how you draw on the conventions of genre, what pre-existing factors everyone has in the back of their minds when they enter into the cinema—and thinks about these things deeply, in a complex way. I do feel that, unfortunately, a lot of work that circulates in the art world at a high level does not think about those things deeply in a complex way. So to our mind, this Biennial is a bit of a corrective as well. Not in an aggressive way …
TB Its a move away from a certain kind of dilettantism that can pervade the art world. Rather than having Work by an artist who’s drawing from the vocabulary of modern dance, you have: Sarah Michelson and Michael Clark. Or, An artist who’s interested in the documentary, you have: Frederick Wiseman. It’s not about medium specificity, so much as it is about people who have a lifelong commitment to the forms that they’re working in. Interdisciplinary work can be a certain pre-supposed ideal, in the art world, I mean—Yvonne Rainer contributions to film are enormous, and so are her contributions to choreography. When that happens, its wonderful, but there’s a danger in interdisciplinary being a pre-supposed ideal for artists. There is a kind of skepticism about that in the film program.
AZ I know that more people are seeing experimental film, but at the same time, people are also getting very, very angry about it. There is a resistance to seeing cinema that has a non-linear narrative, or time-sequence. People find it offensive. Just seeing film feels like a problematic thing, these days.
EH I have a personal theory about this. Light Industry is structured, in a way, to avoid that problem. We don’t have a lot of casual people wandering in, who may not be ready for what they’re about to see. Certainly at bigger festivals that show a variety of work, there is a strange resistance where people really get upset. I remember years ago there was a Brakhage series at MoMA. People were leaving in a huff! To talk about that resistance is really interesting. I think it has to do with the fact that many people, unconsciously, have been watching moving images their entire lives in ways they do not think about. Hollywood and television flatters the viewer in a way that has been developed in over a century of research and development, by an industry intending to deliver a pleasurable narrative. When that pleasure is taken away, it’s like a baby being taken away from its bottle. There’s a cry of desperation. I think that there has to be a re-learning, a re-thinking of how all the different kind of complex ways a moving image can give one pleasure. I think that most people don’t even realize how much they’re used to such a relatively narrow experience of moving image.
AZ I think it goes even deeper than that. I’ve never been offended by experimental cinema. I’m willing to have a higher level of engagement. Its not about being confronted, or pushed. It’s about wanting to see how somebody else sees. I think people are very afraid of that.
EH Well, cinema is an incredibly powerful medium. For example, a sculpture can be a powerful thing. You go into a museum, or a gallery, you encounter it. You can walk past it, if you wish, or just linger. But if you make the commitment to sitting in a room and watching something, the experience is automatically much more intense, just by the structure of engagement. I think that’s something some people are not ready for.
TB Another thing we wanted to emphasize with the Biennial is that, so often, in the context of contemporary art, film is shown as a loop. How a film is edited, and structured in time, are some of the crucial decisions an artist working with those materials makes. We wanted to create an environment where people can attend the films and videos in a way that the work deserves. Its a curatorial logic that should be familiar to anyone who’s gone to the movies. Yet its surprising how rare it is to be given an opportunity to see films or video that way, within the context of contemporary art. This was very important to us. One of the responsibilities of a museum, of a major cultural institution, is to provide an ideal context for viewing art. If the museum abdicates that responsibility, then whose is it?
AZ How did you structure everything, including the residencies, and the performances?
EH It was all a collaboration with [co-curators] Jay [Sanders] and Elisabeth [Sussman]. We proposed the idea of daily shows, where the same work would show every day at set times for a week. Each artist would be given a week-long run, culminating with a conversation, and sometimes even another special event on that Sunday. With this structure we felt were addressing several problems of previous Biennials, and biennials as such, in that at some biennials, which had a much larger number of artists—there would be a kind of patchwork schedule, where artists might show one or two times throughout the three month run. That’s frustrating for audiences, and for the artist, because, well, the sculptor, or the painter, has their work out for three months. And then the filmmaker, who’s supposed to be on the same footing as that artist as a biennial participant, shows to relatively few people.
TB And may have one ten-minute film which is in a larger program that shows a only a few times.
EH One way you can try to solve that problem is: give everyone an installation box. But as Thomas was saying earlier, we don’t feel that a lot of this work is made for that kind of exhibition, and it would suffer from not having a collective audience, from not having the correct experience of the work from start to finish. So, these runs do both things: it gives audiences much more time to see the work. But also, actually… you know, I’m not sure if we thought of this when we did it: it fits so well into the rest of the Biennial, which is so event-driven. Dance, performances and so forth.
TB Yeah, it very much rhymes with the performance schedule. [Two weeks ago] we had Michael Clark on the fourth floor and Thom Anderson in the cinema, within the rest of the show. Daily performances and screenings became part of the experience of seeing the show. Performance, like film, is something that has long been a part of the Biennial, yet is often short-shrifted. It was very important to me and Jay and Elisabeth and Ed to take these things that previously had this peripheral status and bring them to the center, and I think that’s really worked.
AZ Can you give me some examples of how you put people back to back, or next to each other?
TB Last week was this young artist, Laida Lertxundi, who’s actually a student of Thom Anderson’s at Cal Arts. And Thom Anderson is this week. Their work is very different, yet there are ways in which their sensibilities meet. Their interest in pop music, let’s say, or landscape, or cityscapes of Southern California. We definitely imagine artists progressing with these subtle threads.
EH There’s lots of simple ways. Like putting Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler back to back. On one level there’s a practical reason: they were traveling together. They’ve been partners for decades, but beyond the practical reason of having them back to back, is it worked so well in terms of programming.
AZ The way he talked about about Jerome was amazing.
EH Exactly, and the two conversations, the one that P. Adams did with Jerome, and the one I did with Dorsky, felt like continuations of the same conversation, which was really fantastic for the show.
TB In the case of say, Moyra Davey and George Kuchar, you have a diaristic overlap. While with George Kuchar and Kelly Reichardt, it’s a less obvious connection in the sense that they’re both travelogues, or road movies of a sort.
EH I think there was more of a connection, too, between Kelly and Matt Porterfield, who were back to back. This was definitely two ways of engaging with contemporary independent American cinema. Or also, looking at Kevin Jerome Everson’s work next to Laura Poitras. You can call Poitras an investigative journalist as documentarian, then you’ve got Everson, whose work blends documentary and fiction; but the work he’s made this year is much more in the documentary end of things. You might even jump forward to Wiseman, because Wiseman is the master of the institutional critique form documentary. Everson’s film is getting into some of that territory as well, looking at dry cleaners as a social institution. So there are all these connections between the works that we thought about, when laying them out. Then of some the decisions do come down to very practical things, like people’s travel schedules.
AZ Were there any technical interferences with the actual film projection?
EH There were some challenges, although I have to say, of all the museums in New York—with the exception of MoMA—the Whitney is extremely well equipped to deal with all sorts of moving image. They have a really dedicated projection team, and a great booth. Technically, they’re very prepared, but there was a very interesting problem with Dorsky’s work. He required a certain kind of projector, a Xenon 16mm that could go at silent speed. A few years ago this would not have been as hard to find, and in fact, the Whitney has a projector that does that. It seemed like it would work for him, but when he arrived and looked at it, the bulb—which no longer is being manufactured—has gone dimmer over time. It really wasn’t sufficient for the work. The Return is a film that plays very much with very dark images, and without a powerful enough projector, the image is simply not there. Its not about being persnickety about wanting a better projector—in this case, the work was not visible. So, we had to think quickly, and in the end the Whitney brought in a whole different set of projection equipment for it, which was fantastic. It really shows a commitment to showing the work in the best way possible. 16mm projection is getting increasingly difficult. Ten years ago, they could have just gotten a new bulb. It’s getting to the point that, if you’re going to do this right, it’s now or never.
AZ What kind of budget do you guys have for Light Industry? Will you be able to provide the same kind of investment?
EH Well, we have something of a budget. Its two things. We try to work within our limitations. One thing about 16mm it is now being posed as this delicate, hothouse flower, but its a pretty sturdy medium. I was just having this conversation with Peggy Awesh about cinephilia nowadays, about how there’s this cult of the brand new, pristine, restored print. She was like, ‘Listen. For years, if you went to see a movie as a cinephile, you saw a beat-up, crappy print that had been through the projector two thousand times. That’s how you saw La Chinoise for the first time: on a beat-up reduction print.’ We don’t fetishize the beat-up reduction print, and we are open to working with the limitations we have. 16mm just needs a room and a sound system. We’ve been tweaking all these things as we go along. Obviously we don’t simply show 16mm either, but we won’t show a work if we don’t feel it works within the space.
TB Light Industry’s design as an exhibition space is very much about reducing the cinema to its most essential variables: white surface, a grid of chairs, a projector, a dark room. What’s offered is a very different kind of experience than you would have at Lincoln Center. I am so thankful that New York City provides an opportunity to see Playtime on 70mm, but that’s not the experience we offer.
EH We are continuing the cinematheque tradition in the oldest sense. A lot of the works we are showing were made by people completely aware of the fact that it would circulate through a space like this.
TB Film culture, in New York, is a kind of ecology, and we have a role in that. Light Industry’s program is very much a response to what needs to be seen here right now. For example, we’re showing this Sara Gómez film next week because we haven’t had a chance to see Sara Gómez’s film De cierta manera anywhere in New York for years. Our program is always constructed with a sense of what’s on elsewhere, and what needs to be seen, whether it’s a work by a young artist, or something that’s more on the repertory end. Even though there is this embarrassment of riches in New York, there are still things that slip through the cracks. Young artists who don’t have a venue for their work, for example.
AZ Do you respond also to the cultural climate?
TB Definitely. That’s actually another reason why we’re doing this. And if Ed and I really want to see something, in two weeks, it’s on.
EH We can maneuver very quickly. One example of that—well it’s not responding to the climate, but it was responding to the event. We had to suddenly leave our old space, earlier than expected. So we had to literally take down the space, take down the screen—
TB Destroy the screen—
EH Destroy everything, and so it was just a giant open space, filled with dust. And then we thought, Oh! Perfect time to show Anthony McCall’s Solid Light films, the early ones that never got shown! They were permutations of Line Describing a Cone which we had read about. We contacted him: ‘Do you have them, can we do it?’ He got back to us and within a week we were showing them. It was a fantastic show, and it was specific—it could only have happened in that space, in the way that we did it. They were enormous. He explained that when he showed these films originally, there were no smoke machines—they didn’t exist—so, he depended on the fact that many of the lofts were dusty, and people were smoking. That was a case where we maneuvered very quickly, because we knew that the space was amenable to a certain kind of experience. It was fantastic, one of my favorite shows.
For more information on Light Industry, visit their website.
For more information on Braden King and his film HERE, visit his website. Tickets for the Los Angeles and San Francisco screenings of HERE can be purchased here