Film In Conversation
LANA LIN and CAULEEN SMITH
The Winter/Spring edition of Flaherty NYC, programmed by the filmmakers Cauleen Smith and Lana Lin, takes as its theme the concept of transition in many different forms and senses—psychic, bodily, and aesthetic. To explore this theme, Lin and Smith have organized their series, entitled “Tranforming Provocations,” around a number of film and video works by artists including Jennifer Montgomery, Jacolby Satterwhite, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Akwaeke Emezi, Jeanne Liotta, Julie Murray, and Kathleen Collins. We invited the programmers to expand on these themes and the inspirations behind the program, how they brought these works and ideas together, and how their themes have resonated with their own work.
“Transforming Provocations” runs through March 29 at Anthology Film Archives (anthologyfilmarchives.org).
Smith: It’s kind of a sexy topic—trans, transition—it’s in the air, it’s embodied in people everywhere, and we’re experiencing it meteorologically every day. Through these works we get to contemplate the stakes of all this, and to me that’s what’s compelling. All these artists, through their individual investigations, speak to the intricacies of moving from one state-place-time-space to another. The way we brought them together, I think, amplifies some of these concerns that all the artists may share, but may not have ever been looked at in this way. I would love to know, before you even approached me about co-programming, what was it about this idea of transitioning that you were wrestling with?
Lin: I’d already been interested in the idea of “the transitional object” that psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott proposes, and I had been thinking actually about a course designed around thinking through transitions. Winnicott’s concept addresses the movement of human development from infancy to adulthood. I wanted to expand this to thinking more about social questions and how people grapple with transition in different cultural and political environments.
Smith: I’m not that familiar with Winnicott. Is the thesis that transition is finite, that there is a sort of beginning, middle, and end to transition? Or is it possible that this notion of childhood/adulthood is kind of a shifting common that may never resolve itself?
Lin: Different kinds of transitions happen throughout life. Winnicott’s description of transitional objects does dwell on the moment when an infant is trying to discover or determine the limits of itself, because prior to that moment world-mother-baby are one. The transitional object mediates myself and the rest of the world. For Winnicott, I think this whole phenomena sort of diffuses into creative expression later in life, so that as an adult you’re not lugging around a teddy bear. The transitional object gets diffused, but it doesn’t mean you’re not still grappling with these ideas of what’s internal to me and what is external.
The transitional object is a starting point, but, in a way, transition is completely cliché. It’s just a place to begin, to open up some questions about what it means to go from one place to another, whether that’s a physical location or a psychic one. Those moments are really destabilizing, but at the same time they are what makes life even possible.
Smith: I guess I was struggling with the question of whether transition ever finished, or ever ended. I was interested in trying to look at the messes that transition makes, and those messes being more potential or more problem or both at the same time. I’m obsessed right now with this idea that we’re in this critical juncture as humans on a planet, where, whether we want it or not, our planet is transitioning us into some seriously uncomfortable conditions, and we have to deal with this and think about how to address that at this stage.
Lin: That’s great. That’s another way of opening it up. To what extent are we autonomous and who has agency in this transition? Is it individual, is it collective, are we subject to it or can we instrumentalize it? But definitely there was a desire to think it through as open-ended which is reflected in the arc of the programs. We end with Life/Death—Life/Death as a hybrid word, and Afterlife, because it’s ongoing […]
Smith: And explicit in that notion of afterlife is that these things are completely unknowable, even what we think we know we don’t know. Should we talk about the individual programs?
Lin: Sure. I’d like to know what drove the choices you made about selection.
Smith: The great thing about programming for me is asking, what do I need to see and where is it? I felt like, of course, the easiest thing to do in the world is look at what young people are doing. What’s the new work? But in reality I realized that there’s all of these artists working with video and time-based media, and they’re working very much outside of the realm of what’s understood to be film art or the discourse and history of experimental film—whose work was informing my own—and those artists seemed to be leading me way beyond the United States or the continent of North America. So the process of programming with you was so fun because we were literally scouring the planet—Asia, and the continent of Africa, and Eastern Europe—and trying to find things that we needed to see. We ground them in a North American film art-historical context, so there’s a kind of balance with familiarity, but for me, bringing in films from South Africa, Puerto Rico, and Chad is so exciting, especially thinking on this planetary scale about what the stakes are for how we move forward in time.
Lin: That’s very true for me as well—to think about how to tap into history, and retrieve works that hadn’t been seen or should be seen again, and putting them in dialogue with these other newer works.
Smith: Six programs seemed like a lot when we started, and then it wasn’t enough. We pushed it to the limit, what we could do with our resources to get that whole spectrum—the historical, the new, the fringes of art practice—centered in the bedrock of North American experimental film, all together. It seemed like it was really unwieldyat a certain point. From up-and-comers like Cate Giordano to recent MFA graduates like Anansi Knowbody, or someone who’s enjoying this stellar moment with her work, Bea Santiago Muñoz. And something like Loretta Fahrenholz’s Ditch Plains, which has become this unstoppable video object in terms of video, because of its forceful recombination of ideas around what and who is erased, activated, or renewed after a disaster. It’s an exciting range.
Lin: Kathleen Collins’s The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, which will close out the program, is a good example of a work that’s been retrieved. It was presented last year at Lincoln Center, but only for a few days, and it seemed like people really wanted to see it and there should be an opportunity to revisit it. There it was programmed in a Black Independent Cinema context, which makes perfect sense, so for me it was a matter of considering what other, unexpected ways we could look at this.
Smith: The apparatuses of present film and video are quite comfortable, indeed, dependent upon keeping certain works and filmmakers in separate pods, as opposed to acknowledging these spider webs that interweave. I think we were trying to make connections through all the programs that may seem incongruous on paper, but make so much sense when you’re sitting there watching the program. Yoriko Mizushiri’s Maku next to Marguerite Paris’s All Women Are Equal, for example: Mizushiri deploys animation in service of making an erotics of the uncanny palpable, while Paris’s depiction of the transsexual Paula respects her sovereignty and utter groundedness. Stepping outside of the categories that select our identities and looking towards the process of identity, of what it means to come into being, amplifies these connections.
Lin: What is exciting in watching the pieces is the way they provoke an idea of transition across the program as a whole, from one piece to the next. It’s not only within a piece that you might be thinking about a particular subject, like queer transitions or regime change, but between the different pieces. What is Akwaeke Emezi’s Blesi saying next to Wura-Natasha Ogunji’s Will I Still Carry Water When I Am a Dead Woman? One is addressing mixed race traditions and the other is showing this performance of endurance with hooded African women bound to and dragging containers of water. What does the collision of these ideas mean?
Smith: I’m just now realizing Ogunji is a biracial artist, and that does not become central in Will I Still Carry Water. She’s based in Lagos, and she’s very much entrenched in the social and political stakes of that place. It’s interesting to think about the span between where identity locates you and places you, between directly addressing these collisions of cultures and identities and skin colors and languages and geographies, and then also inserting yourself into a geography, and digging into what the stakes are in that place. Conceptually it’s an interesting conflict. Muñoz described the quandary so well in one of her talks when she said that power is not symmetrical and therefore exchanges of knowledge are not balanced. So what does it mean to either refuse or accept the ways in which societal codes select and inscribe us, and coerce our identities—our ways of understanding ourselves? And I think if you’re a fortunate person, many aspects of self resist the frames that are offered and instead forge into unsanctioned territory. But it’s a delicate thing to do when one is also conscious of negotiating the asymmetry of powers that describe our mobility in this world.
Lin: That’s what happens when I’m actually watching the films. Things from the margins of the pieces start to speak to other aspects that I hadn’t even noticed. Like in the “Queer Transitions” program, suddenly there was this thing about cats. I realized that cats are pervasive throughout the series! Layer by Ruth Jenrbekova and Maria Vilk begins with the two artists making love with a cat on the bed. And then Operation Invert, Tara Mateik’s work, satirically asserts that “male inverts” have a fondness for cats.
Smith: And in the “Regime Change” program, Muñoz’s La cabeza mató a todos, the incantation features a cat.
Lin: Yes, definitely. That whole program of “Regime Change” impressed on me a real foregrounding of the non-human that prompted an idea that I hadn’t consciously thought about. Can we understand regime change in these more planetary terms, shifting the focus away from the human perspective, acknowledging that global concerns are not exclusively human?
Smith: Right, having to decenter the human altogether. Thenjiwe Nkosi’s Le Tchad: True Heart, ended with cats. Maybe cats really are an avatar for the in-between. That is in no way what we were thinking about consciously, but instinctively, it seems so evident, so obvious now, after you’ve seen the cats pop up in so many films. It also reminds me of Derrida’s collection of talks, The Animal That Therefore I Am, which to my mind is a vivid indictment of the human species’ need to distinguish itself from every other living being on the planet. He begins his talk by describing a ritual his cat enjoys, which is to stare at him mercilessly every morning while he bathes. In those moments, Derrida describes a profound sense of otherness—of being the cat’s other—and this destabilizes his sense of self.
Lin: Yes, the cat becomes a kind of sign of indeterminacy, of transit and uncertainty.
Smith: To me, the “Transitions in Film Form” program really speaks to all the different strategies that we’re using. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and it was really difficult to pare down, because the more artists we added, the more interesting, dense, and intricate it became.
Lin: There’s this problem for films that deal primarily with form, that they often exist in an apolitical realm, but clearly we sustained a political interest throughout the series. I’m curious about how you think about politics in relation to this thing called film form.
Smith: I feel like we’re both of this generation of filmmakers who are taking structural, very formal strategies in experimental film and deploying them in service of real stakes and content, as opposed to maybe how they’ve been used before, that is, to strip away the artifice to these “pure forms.” I think of myself as a formalist in my own work mainly because I don’t think you can separate the two—the form from the content—I don’t think one is sufficient without the other. When you’re thinking of the material, you’re still thinking about something, right? Are you really thinking only about the material? And if so, well, where would those thoughts lead you? They have to still lead you somewhere out into the world. I think there’s two or three generations of filmmakers who understand very well that formal concerns can be the actual architecture, the skeleton on which you lay all of your conceptual or theoretical ideas, and that it’s actually in our interest as makers to make sure that we build those formal skeletons with a lot of rigor, so that they can support all the other work.
Lin: In that particular program all of the artists are very concerned with the materiality of the form, but exactly as you say, at the service of planetary concerns. Jeanne Liotta’s Observando el Cielo literally studies the circuit of the planet through a seven-year celestial record. Nguyen Trinh Thi’s Chronicle of a Tape Recorded Over takes the form of the exquisite corpse, where a body is produced through accumulated fragments, to capture the life and histories along the Ho Chi Minh trail. And in Untitled (Earth), Julie Murray uses the film strip itself to play with the instability between realism and abstraction, using the landscape of the American West as both a canvas and backdrop.
Smith: For me there’s a feralness in Anansi Knowbody’s use of video. He quite willfully distorts his image so as to sneak a sub-message into the formal qualities of that kind of signal bending. And then with Dorian, The Wallpaper Collection, Michelle Handelman’s glittering “portals” appear in between the longer works. Static theatrical, perhaps cabaret-style prosceniums twinkle and beckon us onto the stage. These ambient video loops function as invitations to part the curtains and go behind the lights, the staging of queerness and that lingering trace of a past performance or the potential of a liberatory future-time that the stage tells us we are waiting for. For me it’s also about the sensorial pleasure of film form and the moving image itself.
Lin: What I appreciate about how you just articulated it is that you go through those portals of material form towards something, and that something can be history, politics, social justice. For example, Ja’Tovia Gary’s An Ecstatic Experience uses a lot of civil rights footage, so it opens up this glimpse into Black history and intervenes with it.
Smith: She’s mining these archival films from the late ’60s and early ’70s civil rights narratives and documentaries and then she’s physically scratching on them.
Lin: Right, so it’s opening up towards and against seminal moments in history, and appropriating and overturning their entrenched meanings.
Smith: I think that through the scratching she’s attempting to inhabit these moments. Her scratchings are gestures of empathy which are not narrativizing or illustrating what the person is saying; they’re doing their own discourse, so the figure that may be talking in the film and then the scratches are doing their own kinds of expressive gestures that are not necessarily illustrating what the person is saying. It’s a little troubling: the physical act and materiality of that interaction.
Lin: There’s this formal inscription that is activating another way of thinking and seeing the past. I want to unpack the last program a little more. It kind of blew my mind to think about putting together something like Collins’s film—which anchors that particular night’s program, and is a narrative about the interaction between an older white woman and these Latino brothers who are haunted by the ghost of their father—with Kim Miller’s Madame Mae Nang Nak, another exquisite corpse-style tale that follows the idea of haunting to Thailand, where local people narrate a legend about a ghost, and then to a Brazilian village in Tamar Guimarães & Kasper Akhøj’s Captian Gervasi’s Family, where more than half the population are possessed and dealing with ghostly spirits in daily life.
Smith: It’s remarkable that we’re in these radically different times and places, guided by artists using really different tactics to explore this. There’s a certain amount of risk in this extreme collaging or assemblage of films. But it’s completely earnest, and there’s this beautiful conversation that conceptually is going on between these artists. And how else would they be able to speak to one another—if we don’t convene the assembly ourselves?