Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ann Arbor Film Festival: Programming

Before I launch into my rant, I must first commend the special programs at this years festival: Mark Hosler; George Manupelli's talk; Michele Silva presenting the Bruce Connor retrospective; Pat Oleszko's performance; Remixing the Rules panel; Gerry Fialka's Ann Arbor Pioneers lecture; and the Canyon Cinema screening. As for the competition screenings, this year's opening night is a decent example of mixing up a range of styles-- my only critique there is to add something challenging. An example of problematic programming is the last half of the 'Shadows of the Night Sea,' where the works suffer from being stylistically and temporally too similar.

Larry Jordan (lawyer, not the filmmaker), Mark Hosler, and Craig Baldwin

Last year, I wrote about the success of screenings that included multiple genres, and the failure of the programs that grouped like works together. The attitude of the leadership seems to be that change is necessary, and that the "old-timers" are adverse to it. Ruffled feathers aside, the programming of the competition screenings over the past couple years at the festival has generated a heated discussion. It was the subject of Gerry Fialka's McLuhan Tetrad this year during his workshop, and I'm going to add my new thoughts here. 

I have nothing against curators-- these folks really work at delineating meaning from a glob of undifferentiated matter, and there are some extremely talented people out there, many of whom were at the festival (Craig Baldwin, Gerry Fialka, David Dinnell, and Adam Hyman, to name a few). I believe there is a place for specialized, themed programming, but it's not at the Ann Arbor Film Festival.

The festival leadership currently professes the need to "get butts into seats." This is a bit of an awkward issue because the chair of the board, Bruce Baker, is also on the board of the Michigan Theater. (see note below) Russ Collins, Michigan Theater Director, is also on the film festival board. Setting this small "conflict of interest" aside, though, the new style of programming is geared to the specialist, so I see this in direct opposition to the stated goal of gaining a larger audience.

One other aside here-- as I have been attending more and more "experimental" festivals over the years, I am constantly surprised at two things: the Michigan Theater as a venue has no equal; and the audience numbers can't be touched-- other festivals are lucky to see 10% of the crowd that comes to the AAFF.

George Manupelli on the Michigan Theater stage

As festival founder George Manupelli stated during his talk as the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker (a special weekly lecture series hosted by the U of M School of Art & Design at the Michigan Theater) on Thursday afternoon: Who does the festival belong to? It doesn't belong to the board of directors-- it belongs to the filmmakers and to the audience. I got teary eyed before he, himself, got choked up on the stage. George expressed later that when they started the festival, they had no idea how it would grow and become something so much larger than themselves.

Pat Oleszko's Saturday night performance on the main stage

Again, the current trend in programming the competition works at the AAFF is geared towards the specialist-- what does this mean?  When putting like films together, an audience well-versed in distinguishing the subtleties between similar tempos, textures, and themes could benefit from comparing them in close proximity to each other. This strategy, however, tries the patience of the generalist; someone who does not make "experimental" moving image art a central life interest becomes bored and restless. I admit that many of us who do love experimental work also get bored and restless. Trying to help the audience "get it" becomes a moot point because people are getting impatient. 

Let's not alienate our potential converts, who likely constitute the majority of our audience! If the goal is to lure in and convert the generalists, the formula that worked so well in the past (and yes, of course change is inevitable, but please don't throw out the baby with the bath water!) was to mix it up. (e.g. "Freeform"-- it's no accident that AAFF programming echos Ann Arbor radio WCBN's infamous programming style). This kind of programming must come from a deep familiarity with the work, and a willingness to set aside the curator's prerogative in favor of the needs of a larger, generalist audience. Leave room for the audience to find and make the connections. This is what the brain does automatically, anyhow. "Let the people have the power" goes beyond the politics of the 1960's... I believe that its infiltrated the very root of the AAFF, and is one of the reasons for its success.

I ran into Ann Arbor artist Helen Gotleib at a going away BBQ for old friends in Ann Arbor during the festival. She reminded me that, in the past, artists contributing work to the silent auction (yet another casualty to the recent changes) would be given a festival pass. She told me how much she loved being able to jump into any screening and be confronted with the unexpected at all times-- to see things she would never have seen anywhere. This year, she and her partner were reduced to trying to navigate the categories and pick something that might be worthwhile. She reported that she missed the variety, the randomness, and the surprises.

One way to find out what the audiences like and want would be to do a survey. And one way to take advantage of the curatorial talent associated with the festival would be to focus it on serving the audience.

Finally, I must affirm my desire for the competition works to be on the main screen-- the "Silver Screen" as George put it. Many of us were disappointed last year, and this is George's one strongly stated wish for the festival: to prioritize the filmmakers and the continued creation of new work by featuring it on the "Silver Screen." This kind of appreciation can only be demonstrated by concrete action, as we have just witnessed with the Obama administration paying its respects to the arts by including it in the stimulus package.

George Manupelli

The Ann Arbor Film Festival is a part of who I am, and I am a small part of what it has been and is. Over the course of the last 17 years I have watched hundreds of moving image works, been an intern, shown my films in the competition, been on the screening committee, organized and programmed sidebar screenings and special events, won an award, fought in the front lines for opening the festival to digital, led parades, made work for the lobby, hung out in the green room and the back alley, had the honor of calling filmmaker friends when their films screened or were awarded...I could go on...  I am all for change, but feel very deeply that this change must serve the integrity and the best interests of the festival.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Meeting the Mayor: Luminaria

Sarah Fisch bartending in the CAM VIP Lounge

Here's a link to the super-flattering article that Sarah Fisch wrote on my students' projects for Luminaria, but the story that I want to tell is the one about how I met the San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger the night of Luminaria.

First, some pictures:

my kids installing their "Future Utopias" show
(L to R: Mauricio Gudiño, Derek Brown, Alyosha Burkee, Utah Snyder, Joshua Hurt)

John Mata installing his "Room made mostly of cardboard and masking tape, containing various media relating to the idea of New Media and Future Utopia"

entrance to the "Future Utopias" exhibition

the Deluminators: Utah Snyder and Michael Stoltz

Contemporary Art Month occupied the Beauty College building

Randy Wallace's striking and visceral installation in the basement of the Beauty College

Randy is quickly becoming one of my favorite artists in San Antonio

Buttercup playing at the Beauty College

back at "Future Utopias," Derek Brown's "No Borders" projection installation in the background

onlookers looking at Davis James' "Minute-ness" 2-channel video sculpture

Alyosha Burkee's "Get Schooled" video in the foreground, Utah Snyder's table of handmade goods in the background (mostly gone by this time of the night)

Jennings Sheffield "Separation of Power" in the background, and Mauricio Gudiño's 2-channel video installation in the foreground

OK, now for the story.

Roll of gaffers tape in-hand, I was running around all night closing up the seams in the pipe-and-drape that surrounded the "Future Utopias" show. There was an entrance and a flow designed for the space, but the masses wanted to find any gap and make it into an entrance or exit point. There was something interesting about these porous borders (especially within the context of South Texas), but it was more important to uphold the integrity of the space... besides, it could be downright dangerous to have everyone crashing through the walls at any given moment.

For example, around 11:30pm a couple guys came stumbling through the drape into the show, one guy grabbing onto the wavering pipe, which offered no support to counter his off-balance stance. As I rushed over to seal up the breach, I recognized that this was Mayor Hardberger, who was having a rightfully jolly time in the final half-hour of his second annual and majorly successful city-wide arts festival. I took the opportunity to introduce myself, and we chatted for awhile-- he remembered last year's UTSA New Media Studio exhibition on Houston Street, and cited two specific artworks from memory: Mike Stoltz' 2-channel installation, where a woman in a doorway greets the viewer very warmly; and Gary Wise's "Eat." I made sure that he had my card before he left, and wished later that I had taken advantage of this as a photo op, in which case you'd be seeing a picture of me & the mayor here.

Maybe next year...!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A Loose-Knit "Symposium" (mid-february)

We had a fun few days with some experimental music performances, edgy films and videos, and general cross-culture pollination on the occasion of the Bearded Child Film Festival coming to town (thanks UTSA New Media Program), the No Idea Festival just around the corner in Austin ushering in Jason Kahn (thanks also Swiss Arts Council + UTSA) and Annette Krebs, and the overlap of  John Mata's "Sala Diaz Is Open" project. 

Dan Anderson introducing his Best of Bearded Child Film Festival program at UTSA

In the same room, the night before the BCFF screening, we held the panel: "DIY and the Avant-Garde." Chris Cogburn (No Idea festival founder & director) imparted the idea that we can all encounter an experimental music set together, but essentially each one of us is also alone in our experience. This reminds me of the similar notion in experimental film, one that Dave Hickey discusses in an essay from Air Guitar about his experience viewing experimental film during his college years. In it he describes the a-ha moment while watching "Haircut," by Andy Warhol. There is the excruciatingly slow activity of the haircut, of nothing seeming to happen... for a long time, of the rise of his self-awareness as a viewer, and the discomfort of the audience. The ongoing internal dialogue in this case, and an important counterpart of the aloneness that Chris talked about, breaks into collective relief and shared joy as the protagonist finally reaches into his shirt-pocket for a cigarette. 

Annette Krebs performing at "Sala Diaz Is Open" to a packed room. We all listened intently.

Dan Anderson & Ben Judson in the big red van, transporting chairs to the Beauty College

at the Beauty College, Travis Street, downtown San Antonio

Annette Krebs and Chris Cogburn performing at the Beauty College

Annette and Chris opened for Jason Kahn. A focused quietness filled the room. One guy sipped from a pint bottle of whiskey. We were on the horse-drawn-carriage tourist ride route. The street sound-scape offered up the clomping of horses' hooves, a car alarm, (the absence of the train that we usually hear outside of Salon Mijangos), a skateboard on the sidewalk. Brakes, shoes, a honk, and revving engine. Door creek.

Annette K had her guitar on her lap, rubbing it with a steel scrubby pad. I imagined that she's had that guitar since she was 15, and in a punk band... but that's just my fantasy, she informed me later. Chris C came off as a conjurer, bringing presence to the present, creating that space for us to be by ourselves, together.

7 or 8 men entered into the space, and two of them began to whisper back and forth, sapping the fullness of this poised, riveted moment; pulling from the focal point, not consciously participating. I could keep thinking about these ideas, but after a little while whispered over to them: 'If you guys are going to talk, would you please go in the back?' One guy quips "I was waiting for them to start." I found out later that he is the owner of the Beauty College who had let us hold the event in his place. It was a culture clash with a fellow who may like the attention that art draws to his building, but may not necessarily like, or even care to understand the art itself. I'm not really sure what to do with that, other than to observe. 

Conversely, Patrick Zeller and I talked at the intermission, and he divulged that he was really working at "being open, patient, and listening." This music is certainly far outside the mainstream, and demands a different attitude from its audience-- one that Patrick nailed. Being open to an unknown experience may bring risk, but it has potential for great reward, too. It seemed like this music was a new experience for Patrick, but being an artist who travels and photographs outside of his own culture primes him for unique encounters.

Jason Kahn flanked by the Boyd Brothers, after his performance

As for Jason Kahn's set, I was struck by the physicality of the music. He played a drum, modulated by electronic implements. Fine-tuning frequency, manipulating wavelength, modulating the analog hand-signal on the drum by way of the electronic tool/control panel, like a vehicular dashboard. He transfixed the audience through a wall of sound, a physical, spatial, dynamic experience. Sound oscillating, Kahn's rocket-ship blasted the audience into orbit (like the time I saw Susie Ibarra play in the Diego Rivera Courtyard at the Detroit Institute of the Arts)-- a space-time machine. Its best to surrender.

highlights from LA: particularly great moments

Bree Edwards (Be Johnny) and Roy, Los Angeles in the background

Fat Tuesday dinner at Jenna & Oliver's place (M&A)... with old friends Matt Bakkom and Claire Didier, and new friend Sarah Beetle, who its taken too long to finally meet! Jenna made this awesome gumbo pictured above, and Sarah made the rest of the delicious meal-- some fancy chicken that took a day and a night to cook, only to melt in the mouth like ice cream, but served hot... and an amazing chocolate cake to round it out.

Bree & I went to see Deborah Stratman present her new piece "O'er The Land," along with a couple other short works, at Redcat Theater.  This was a real treat! I was at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in experimental film (for a little over a year) when Deborah was there, but I doubt she would remember me. Looking forward to seeing her piece again at the Ann Arbor Film Festival next week!!

Anjali Gupta, Jay, Patricia Olynyk, and Robert Girou... a nightcap at the hotel bar. Awesome to unwind from the week in utter silliness with these great pals.

highlights from LA: new media caucus (late Feb)

a still from the live mix

"It's going to be hard, but it'll be worth it!" This is the new mantra given to me by my new boss (chair of the UTSA Art & Art History Department) Greg Elliott, at the start of this year. (He says: "I'm not your boss! I'm just the guy you ask for money!") During my time at the conference, I worked my ass off as the New Media Caucus exhibition committee chair! We mounted the exhibition "@" at SCI-Arc, and it was an amalgamation of Second Life and Real World situations/objects.  So it was hard, but it was definitely worth it.

The New Media Caucus is a College Art Association affiliated group that formed in order to focus the potential of the academic new media art contingent in one arena. Many of us are the lone voice in our respective departments, are forging the way with new ideas and media into unrecognizable terrain, and benefit from the backing of an organization sanctioned by the larger academic community.

One of the important things that the NMC has done during its short existence (6 years) was to write the guidelines for review of faculty teaching in new media arts-- something that maybe only those of us in academia can appreciate... but it was a relief to me that this CAA-validated document existed, providing some concrete guidelines for my perplexed colleagues when they review my record.

Anyhow, enough of that... Here's a shot of Johnny Dekam, and Jason. Potter-Belmar Labs got to jam with Be Johnny for the NMC reception of the show "@," and it was a blast-- really great to plug my video signal into Johnny's rig & have a buffer between me and the screen for a change. On account of finally making it to Second Life (to attend meetings with my colleagues for the organization of the exhibition, believe it or not), I ended up sampling a bunch of imagery from that virtual world to use in the mix.  

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

highlights from LA: M&A (late February)

The College Art Association annual conference happened in LA this time around, and what a treat to see so many old friends both living in town and visiting for the conference.

Jay & Jenna

The last Sunday morning brought us to waffle brunch at Materials & Applications. Jenna texted: "this is a BYO-Breakfast meats and Bloody mary mix! The more the merrier!" 

here's the Lil' Punisher checking out fish in the fountain

Eddy Sykes' Yakuza Lou robotic garden sculpture was taken down the day before-- sad to see it go! but we were able to set up a big table in the space that it had occupied at the center of the front yard.

clockwise from left side: friend of M&A, Jason, Oliver Hess,
Jenna Didier, Claire Didier, Brian, Anjali Gupta

Sunday, March 08, 2009

PBL @ "Sala Diaz Is Open," Feb 13

As usual, as soon as the semester began, time and energy evaporated for tending to my beloved online journal. With spring break here, I'll attempt a scattershot approach to updating some of my recent activities.

John Mata invited PBL to contribute to "Sala Diaz Is Open."  Here is a link to Mark Jones' SA Current coverage on John's project, written at the beginning of of the month-long occupation-- the thing that it does not talk about (because it hadn't happened yet) was the life-blood of live performance that charged the place every weekend. This includes a sound performance by Berlin-based Annette Krebs, local artist Randy Wallace's action (read Sarah Fisch's coverage here), as well as a night of our live cinema improv.

We set up across the street in the red van, pointed 4500 lumens of vjFutureWorkerGirl moving light and image and 900 watts of spokeNine ambient sound collage at Sala Diaz.  The Brothers Boyd were inside, mixing dubstep. In the middle of the street was the sweet spot where the soundscape opened into another dimension. 

I had spent the day gathering up images from the local environs to mix up with my general library. Beto Gonzales summed it up when he asked, rhetorically: "Is this Southtown dreaming itself?"