In Lydia Davis’s most recent collection Can’t and Won’t, there is a one-sentence story entitled “Bloomington” that kept returning to my mind as I watched the diverse slate of works from CROSSROADS 2016, San Francisco Cinematheque’s annual festival dedicated to artist-made film and video. The story reads:
“Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.”
Curated by Cinematheque Artistic Director Steve Polta, CROSSROADS 2016 featured a number of works from a range of established and emerging artists that ultimately eluded any singular or familiar sense of time or place. While similar notions of placelessness and fluidity have essentially become edicts of the 21st century, CROSSROADS highlighted the transformative immediacy of perpetual becoming as backloaded by histories of lived time that become materially and spatially present. Investigating the nature of moving images and their processes of construction, the works as a whole uncovered time as a form of historical interference, an entity that splits as it flows.
Ben Rivers’s A Distant Episode contemplates the act of filmmaking as a fundamentally ethnographic practice. A provocative would-be sci-fi companion to Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, A Distant Episode sees distance as a metaphor and critical practice. Rivers appropriates outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage from his feature The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers into a vision of human invasion into the natural landscape. Shot on the beaches of Morocco in a glistening black-and-white, A Distant Episode finds dark figures among the evocative landscape, each playing their part in a strange, other-worldly dualism. Removed from the production site, the view from a distance allows Rivers to ask what part these often unidentifiable shadow figures with their clunky, awkward equipment play in a space that they only temporarily inhabit, in a world that is not their own.
Whereas A Distant Episode observes filmmaking’s ethnographic impulse, Josh Gibson’s Journey to the Sea incorporates past films to explore the withering of memory. A delicate portrait of an elderly woman’s memories of travel, Journey to the Sea initiates a double move in which the blurring and fading of the woman’s memories become enhanced by a veritable travelogue of cinematic imagery, boundlessly and buoyantly floating via straight cuts from one place to the next. Although the narrator discusses the erosion of her memory, what stands out equally in Gibson’s film is the rich play of image textures. Marked by the passage of time, each memory, each space, each strip of celluloid, emerges with a vivid differentiation in saturated color and tone. The sea’s vision of constant flow is nonetheless marked, split, and separated by the status of the images as forms of individual memory.
Peter Burr’s computer-animated video The Mess, on the other hand, dissolves the boundaries between subject and space, leaving its characters (and the viewer) in a state of utter bewilderment. (To the credit of Polta’s programming, the potential illegibility of The Mess was lessened by its placement at the end of a great program which established something of a framework through which to read this difficult, complex work.) Written by game designer Porpentine, The Mess follows a solitary female figure named Aria End who is sent to clean up an area called The Mess. Monitored by STOMA (Seratonin Tracking Orifice Management Application), Aria End wanders through The Mess’s labyrinthian passageways as The Mess locates a dynamically glitchy world that is able to infinitely expand into increasingly abstracted territory. Through Aria End’s precarious journey through The Mess, Burr pushes the viewer into a fascinating, bizarre, and nightmarish void of a richly detailed digital environment.
Other strong works navigated shifting terrains of spaces, images, and the body. Meredith Lackey’s Iron Condor traces the transformation of physical and material obsolescence into representations of data that leave humans in a weightless state of perpetual freefall. Nazli Dincel’s Her Silent Seaming counterposes hand-scratched text detailing intimate conversations the filmmaker had while separating from her husband with precise editing strategies and an asynchronous soundtrack to detail an experience of painful restoration through tangible destruction. Heather Trawick’s Center of the Cyclone uses a three part structure to detail the movement of innocuous landscapes into disjunctively layered spaces brimming with possibility. Mike Stoltz’s Half Human, Half Vapor, enhanced by a wonderful white noise soundtrack, seeks to make a telepathic connection between an outsider artist’s sculptures which surround an abandoned Florida mansion and the surrounding environment. Mont Tesprateep’s Endless, Nameless establishes an evocative, transfixed state full of faint memories that become more vivid as they dissipate into the ether of pure white light.
While each of these works use time as a structural element to open onto unique problems and possibilities, new films by Karen Yasinsky and Michael Robinson point toward the weight of time and history onto disparate sounds and images. Yasinsky’s The Man From Hong Kong is an alluring fever dream, which confoundingly marries found vacation footage with sounds from two Bruce Lee films and opens onto photographs by Man Ray and Paul Outerbridge. Teasing out the percolating sensual and erotic undercurrents in sound-image relations, Yasinsky has a keen sense of the emotional weight of recorded images, both public and private. The Man from Hong Kong shows her peculiar and inventive methods in unveiling latent potentialities of moving images.
Finally, Michael Robinson’s Mad Ladders continues his ongoing (and, at this point, well-known and familiar) explorations of dormant communication and emotional underpinnings in outdated pop cultural imagery. However, to think that Robinson is merely rehashing his earlier work would be a mistake. Though the patterned glitz and glamour recalls the spatial reconfigurations of These Hammers Don’t Hurt Us and the proselytizing narrator suggests to some extent Line Describing Your Mom, Robinson has begun enacting a more implicit critique of strategies which he helped introduce to experimental cinema nearly a decade ago. If The Dark, Krystle pointed toward the exhaustion of material put under the pressure of supercut criticism, Mad Ladders attempts to find a way neither to ironically transcend (or create a distance from) his material nor to necessarily let the weight of the material speak for itself. Instead, using footage from the American Music Awards telecasts and a God-like voiceover from a YouTube narrator, Mad Ladders finds the glorification of found footage crumbling and reawakening beneath its repetitious grandeur. Amidst an expanding and rotating universe, it ends with a struggle to settle into one place and asks where it can go without obliterating itself. Mad Ladders is indicative of Robinson’s recent work in its methodical questioning of the undefined, transitional space that it finds itself within and its reminder that staying in one place doesn’t mean you’re not moving.
CROSSROADS locates itself at the sprawling intersection of the contemporary moving-image and artists cinema. If something seems adrift, it may be that CROSSROADS more than other festivals bears witness to the untethering of the moving-image from places and spaces we have been before. Then again, we may need to stay a little bit longer to be sure.
JAMES HANSEN is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Art Department at Ohio State University. He is currently completing his dissertation on the incorporation of domestic technologies in contemporary moving-image art.