Saturday, April 26, 2008

Media Archeology

Here's Andrea Grover, Aurora Picture Show Artistic Director, introducing Negativland at Rice University. What's that super-fashionable headband thing on her head? Its a special blindfold handed out to everyone at the door in order to block out all of that distracting knob-twiddling to enable full surrender to the aural cut-and-paste extravaganza of Negativland's 2-hour live-broadcast set.

Found sound montage on God and religion punctuated by regular radio-announcer-style interruptions, reminding listeners that we were tuned in to "Its All in Your Head Radio." The highlight of the show was getting to see Mark Hosler behave like a monkey.

Brent Green performing at the Orange Show, a historical folk art treasure obsessively built by a man who worshipped the orange. The space is just right for the flavor of Brent's story-telling alongside his animations, backed up by his band-- charming, coarse around the edges, spontaneous, and full of humor and poetry.

Brent being interviewed after his show by someone sporting one of those flip video cameras. Talking with the camerawoman a little later, she raved about the ease of use and surprisingly good quality of the video image.

The top-notch gaffer job laid by Guy, #1 Volunteer Worker Bee of the Aurora Picture Show. Notice the precise parallel of the cables running across the brickwork, then up the side of the performance ring, held spot on by three perfect tape strips. Once inside the ring, the cables turn to spaghetti.

Last visit to the EAI library in NYC, I had the good folks there pull a respectably long list of material for my viewing mission, most memorable were the episodes from Shana Moulton's 'Whispering Pines' series. Her live performance, 'Cynthia's Moment,' at black box theater Diverseworks, expanded the strangely unique digital kitch of that single channel work into the present moment.

And finally, 'Putting the Balls Away' is a meticulously executed tennis match by Tara Mateik in which s/he reenacts parts of the infamous Billy Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs match to the original audio of the sports broadcast coverage of the 1973 Houston game. Mateik's smart and impressively implemented performance brings into play contemporary aspects of gender struggle.

An awesome and much appreciated showcase of contemporary moving image practice curated by Nick Hallett and Andrea Grover-- I can't wait until next year's Media Archeology installment!

Sunday, April 06, 2008

3 final things worth mentioning about the A2F2

1. Uneven Programming

For the first time, the festival folks programmed the competition work into themed shows. The screenings that worked the best incorporated a good variety of genres. For example, "The Orbits Inside" screening that our piece was in (Pandora's Bike by Potter-Belmar Labs) included a short animation, a longer documentary as well as a couple of non-traditional documentaries, an abstract experimental, a found footage remix poem, and an experimental family portrait.

"Cracking the Space/Time Continuum," on the other hand, contained a lot of excellent, hardcore experimental work that explored various perceptual phenomena. It was just too much, though, and the work suffered from being next to so many other intense and abstract visuals.

2. Technology Ups & Downs

I think its fair to say that the technological glitch dates back to the beginning of technology. Up until about 2002, the technical difficulties suffered by the A2F2 included things like:
- films breaking
- films being tails-out (backwards)
- films getting stuck in the gate and melting
- projector bulbs burning out
- a projector falling through the projection window (this really did happen)

Call me a nerd, but I just had to check out the gear in the projector booth when I heard that Tom Bray was set up to run the videos as digital files off a hard drive this year!

Tom Bray in the screening room booth.
An identical system was in place in the main theater booth as well.

I got the tour, along with a few of Tom's colleagues from University of Michigan's Duderstat Center/Digital Media Commons. As usual, things coming out of U of M are at the technological cutting edge-- I did not realize this until I came to San Antonio. According to Tom, he was not able in his research to find any other festival working in this manner... yet!

When we found out that our video was accepted, I was surprised that we were not instructed to bit-torrent our file to some big server at the University... one step at a time! Everyone was asked to send the highest quality digital video file on a data dvd, hard drive or jump drive. All of the work was then downloaded to a 2TB firewire drive, organized by screening, and imported to FCP. This year the signal that went out of the computer was converted to analog (next year will probably step up to digital), and pumped through 8000-lumen HD projectors onto the screens. Everything seemed to be running smoothly for the first couple of days.

But then...

While not entirely certain about what was going on, I think the problems stemmed from the variety of digital formats. Judging from all of the possible output settings that I saw listed in the menu-- easily over 30-- navigating the parity on this was a nightmare waiting to happen. And it actually wasn't so bad-- sitting in the dark waiting for the glitches to be worked out allowed me lots of time to digest what I had been seeing, and just generally clear and calm my brain. I also was able to exercise uber-patience, knowing what they were dealing with in the booth.

A most wonderful glitch-moment happened during mk12's "The History of America." This piece is a story about the cowboys vs. the astronauts, and so technically savvy that many of us in the audience entertained the idea and even believed that the amazingly harsh digital sounds that interrupted the musical soundtrack (about half-way through) were intentional. On a conceptual level, it made sense-- the technology was taking over and winning-- the astronauts were conquering humanity! Some official from the festival who came in to apologize for the technical problem said: "I can't believe you guys sat through ten minutes of this!" and someone in the audience shouted back: "This is the Ann Arbor Film Festival! We thought it was part of the piece!"

3. Light on the Supercinematics

"Supercinematics" is a term I found in Ruth Bradley's 1985 cultural studies dissertation on the Ann Arbor Film Festival. It refers to those extra artworks that go beyond straight-up projection on the screen. In the rich tradition of the festival lobby installations, this year included Esther Kirshenbaum's giant keys hung from the lobby ceiling, Rich Pell's "Body of Evidence" in the back lobby, and one of Frank Pahl's automated sound sculptures on display.

The main stage has hosted some great Friday and Saturday night opening acts, including Pat Oleszko and silt. Breaking from tradition, there was only one specially programmed act, and it was planned for the small screening room. And to make it worse, Luis Recoder and Sandra Gibson's live cinema performance was called off due to bad weather in NY (where their flight was canceled).

People commented on how un-special the after-parties were. "I thought you guys knew how to party," and "I really expected more," were the kinds of things people said to me. Well, its true... finding rooms at various venues in which festival folks could convene post-screenings was the bare minimum. Something was better than nothing anyhow. I think the organizers were busy raising $75,000 and winning the first-amendment case against the state of Michigan.

It is no secret where my bias lays. Anyone who knows me through the festival has seen how much love I have put into supercinematics for the Ann Arbor Film Festival over the past decade. Planning and taking part in parades, lobby art, satellite exhibitions of hybrid art that incorporate the moving image, booking live cinema acts into the theater, bringing in artists to create immersive after-party environments in sound an image, storefront window displays, and etc.

The Ann Arbor Film Festival originated in the University of Michigan Art Department. It was something that grew naturally out of fine arts practice. From the beginning, there was lots of room for hybrid expression. And this is something I have strived to be attuned to in all of the contributions I have made to the festival. Of course I am sorry to see this wither in the name of a singular focus on the films.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Bottom 3 at the AA Film Festival

A shot from the balcony during the 9 Questions rehearsal in 2003 for the 41st, with my vj rig and a video projector set up on the ledge (at this time the festival was still strictly celluloid!) This was a 13-person multimedia performance that included music, dance, live video, and shadow puppets that was produced by Jason Jay Stevens.

1. Moving the majority of the competition screenings out of the main theater = A MAJOR BUMMER.

every seat in the 200-seat screening room was filled for many screenings--
people were turned away!

It was a major disappointment to have the competition screenings SQUEEZED into the small 200-seat screening room. MANY people who came out to see films were TURNED AWAY!! I don't buy the argument that any filmmaker would rather have their audience, if it were only 200 people, crowded into a small room rather than dispersed throughout the main room of the beautiful Michigan Theater 1927 movie palace.

My film "Rife w/ Fire" played on that screen in 1998 during the 36th Ann Arbor Film Festival. And it was GLORIOUS. As a maker, to have my creation glowing on the alter of the Temple of Cinema is always a major honor. The brightness of image, clarity of sound(!), and overall scale of the experience is breathtaking when it's your work up on that screen! I won best Michigan Filmmaker that year. My video "Pandora's Bike" was projected on that same screen this year-- ten years later! I was lucky that it was programmed on a Wednesday night when they weren't as concerned about the weekend audience filling seats!

Seeing the festival mutate in this way brings the tentacles of corporate lust into sharper focus. I know that there have been longtime forces in Ann Arbor pushing hard to develop the festival into something more commercial. I am saddened that these forces are gaining control, and angry that these people do not realize &/or respect the fact that the Ann Arbor Film Festival is a living treasure of international experimental film. The people currently running the festival are not allies of the avant garde. Though some may pay lip service, I am not convinced.

"Characters," 2005, for the 43rd festival-- you can see Potter-Belmar Labs (me & Jason) camped out in the pit with our gear. We did a live a/v mix this time around.

2. Michigan Filmmakers relegated to the one single screening on Sunday afternoon : (

I had to miss seeing the work of many old friends, as I had to fly back to San Antonio on Sunday. This was another programming decision that makes me sad. The festival director explained to me that she struggled with this, but went with it as an attempt to "get butts into seats" on the difficult-to-program Sunday afternoon, even going so far as to say that the decision was "experimental." Maybe putting one of the big documentaries on Sunday afternoon would be better. I think it is incredibly important to keep the local work interwoven with the national and international scope of the whole event.

3. Obnoxious students at the Joost Rekveld presentation!

Joost presented on Thursday afternoon, as part of the ongoing weekly Penny Stamps Distinguished Visitors Series of lectures presented by the University of Michigan School of Art & Design. The majority of attendees were certainly the A&D student body, who are required to attend the lecture series. Many of them talked loudly during his "#11, Marey <-> Moiré" and "#23.2 Book of Mirrors," two visually stunning abstract films with equally entrancing soundtracks. An incredibly disrespectful bunch of spoiled brats, if you ask me... or at least the rotten ones are making the whole bushel seem bad!

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A2F2 TOP 3, #3

B E I N G _ B A C K

Jeremy Rigsby and Oona Mosna of the excellent Media City Film Festival (Windsor, Ontairio)

Mike Woodruff's backyard, which is a house in which I rented a room in the summer of 1991, after which at some point an old high school acquaintance bought the house, from whom Mike acquired it after that.

outdoor, winter ping-pong

DJ Bobby Moir showing off a job

Michigan Theater Back Entrance

A2F2 TOP 3, #2

A2F2 archivist Gerry Fialka intends to publish
"History of the Ann Arbor Film Festival"
in time for 5oth in 2012!!

The sessions he delivered were a real treat: Kick Out the Jams & AAFF Innovators. I found them both to be a great way to start out my day. Fialka presided (while claiming to not be a teacher, rather a moderator of an open-ended discussion) at the University of Michigan School of Art & Design Work Gallery, just around the corner from the Michigan Theater, posing many slippery, open-ended questions. The one which bent my mind the most:

If we were to begin the a2f2 today, should we be inclusive or exclusive?

The tip of a deeeep iceberg for me right now-- now being a moment of massive change in terms of the way capitialism has taken hold at the global level, the evolution of communications technologies, the myth of the starving artist and the breakdown of Modernism's ideals. But we artists must evolve in tandem with the evolution of our world. We deal our trade in creativity, and ought to be imagining our best reality... and building it.

"We must be guided only by what the situation requires."

McLuhan's Tetrad
1) What does it enhance or intensify?
2) What does it render obsolete or replace?
3) What does it bring back that was previously obsolete?
4) What does it become when pressed to an extreme, what does it flip into?

Fialka led us through the McLuhan Tetrad on various subjects such as the use of compositing within the moving image, and the long take (Warhol, Snow, Tarkovsky). The resulting interactive brainstorms verged on a freeflow of associations rooted within our collective knowledge of film, causing our knowledge base to reform in new and interesting constellations.

McLuhan's Tetrad as applied to compositing
(answers offered up that I can remember):
1) What does it enhance or intensify?
multiplication of reality
2) What does it render obsolete or replace?
representational imagery
3) What does it bring back that was previously obsolete?
the Surrealist films of makers such as Buñuel and Cocteau
4) What does it become when pressed to an extreme, what does it flip into?
MTV, commercialization of moving image

McLuhan's Tetrad as applied to the long take
(answers offered up that I can remember):
1) What does it enhance or intensify?
inner dialogue, observation
2) What does it render obsolete or replace?
3) What does it bring back that was previously obsolete?
early cinema
4) What does it become when pressed to an extreme, what does it flip into?
possibly enlightenment

"The user is the content."
(McLuhan quoted by Fialka)

This diagram popped into my mind in thinking about this idea. Where the artist produces the film (a), which is projected onto a screen (b), and the viewer (c) observes it, but the reality of what s/he experiences is a projection of her/his own mind. (Can we ever be truly objective?)

It is truly wonderful to know that a record of the Ann Arbor Film Festival is in the making, and it is being guided by someone who is deeply dedicated to the exploration of knowledge, holds an affinity for the A2F2, and is intimate with the language of experimental cinema and media philosophy. Thanks Gerry!