Mixed Use is a series of articles I’m writing for The Brooklyn Rail covering current film work which expands the traditional space of the cinema. Investigations include communications of “unofficial” culture, ephemeral pieces “not going anywhere,” bootlegs (and their sale), and the decay of “pink prints.” The emphasis is on small-scale productions emitting from satellite alternative spaces.
Mixed Use: ESP TV’s Unit 11, The Brooklyn Rail, March 2017.
Mixed Use: Spectacle’s Trailers, The Brooklyn Rail, July/August 2016.
The Blind Field is the title of my extended essay on Peggy Ahwesh’s installation Kissing Point, recently published by The Journal of Digital Media Arts and Practice. The exhibition catalogue is available for purchase through Microscope Gallery.
Screen Slate writing Pre-Updated Website:
What’s Showing Today? Friday, May 6, 2016
Tonight The Film-makers’ Coop screens Jim Hubbard’s staggering United in Anger: A History of Act Up!. Over ten years in the making, the film organizes an immense amount of multiple-source footage shot during the most urgent period of the AIDS Crisis: when awareness turned into anger and people began literally fighting for their lives.
Every Monday, The New York Lesbian and Gay Center became a haven for those living with loss, fear and isolation. Outside, TV news anchors were reporting that most Americans were in favor of quarantining (i.e., internment camps) and even tattooing people with AIDS. Opposing this regressive nightmare, The NYLG Center made a space for energy, ideas, brainstorming, job networking, flirting, and cruising. Knowledge was produced. Positions were taken. Announcements made. Eventually the space crowded from one hundred people to over four hundred, turning into a makeshift school for discussion on different approaches to social conflict as well as a training space for civil disobedience.
Coalition-building was one of the defining characteristics of Act Up (it is part of its moniker: Aids Coalition to Unleash Power). The whole group couldn’t act without the support of innumerable, close-knit community groups. Called Affinity Groups, these small groups of like-minded people were allowed to do what they wanted. As a safety structure, they created familiarity and trust so that spontaneous action could be taken at any time.
Tangled in red tape, chanting, “We Die They Do Nothing,” these activists understood that sexual freedom had to be defended and that healthcare is a human right. Witnessing their courage is exciting: seizing of the FDA in Rockville, MD; dying-in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral; the multiple actions on Wall Street; entering the Department of Health & Human Services. A larger vision is revealed: we must create a world where people who need healthcare can get it. We need to include the needs of women, the poor, the homeless, drug users, and people with AIDS. —Mary Billyou
What’s Showing Today? Wednesday, May 4, 2016
Showing at Spectacle through May is Grrrl Germs: A Visual History of Riot Grrrl. Inspired by the VHS compilation tapes of Joanie 4 Jackie (Miranda July’s distribution project from the 1990s), this series presents ten films out of an unfathomable body of work. Hailing from the pre-smart phone era, these films were made in blind belief of an audience, through networks of friends, and via punk music.
Riot Grrrl consciously bypassed mass culture as affirmation, effectively creating a “media blackout” in which a shared agreement was held that reporters were persona non grata, no matter how many times they might call. Amongst ourselves, however, in a quiet room at The Positive Force House, we had endless discussions about representation, dominant culture, and capitalism. Spin’s plastic packaging of our unique experience had only quickened the free fall in which we lived.
A barricade mood informs the hyperbolic performances captured in these films, furious at the isolation endured because of a stifling society. In an upside down world, where where sexual abuse goes unrecognized, to whom can trust be safely given? In Lucy Thane’s She’s Real (Worse Than Queer), one young woman finds herself “…existing as an aberration; when you’re speaking your truth or your reality, it becomes radical.” Widening the stage spotlight, Riot Grrrl becomes expansive, including every girl.
As if reality were science fiction, this was the time of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the government’s fatal ignorance of AIDS, the decisive evisceration of the NEA, the Christian Coalition, and a burgeoning Pentagon budget. Today, we are not so far from this. The negative vision of punk recognizes the massive failure of these brutal systems. Like the pogo, it rails against the vertical, privileged society that makes us into minorities, assuming we are invisible. What happens to the closeted? The depressed? The desperate? As Jody Bleyle of Team Dresch announces between songs, “When you’re gay you have to choose your own family; because your own family probably didn’t treat you well.” I remember the Self-Defense Demos at their shows—it made me happy they did them—it is an important skill in a dangerous world.
Describing different dynamics within punk and feminism, these films address the complexity of being “born against.” The unprofessional is all important: it reveals an audience experimenting. Filmmakers will be in attendance after the shorts program on Thursday, May 19th at 7:30PM. Spectacle is located at 124 South 3rd St, (near Bedford) in Brooklyn, NY. All screenings cost $5. —Mary Billyou
What’s Showing Today? Thursday, March 31, 2016
Currently showing at the Museum of Arts and Design is the group show In Time (The Rhythm of The Workshop). Taking a cue from durational film, the museum’s press release hails “Slow Looking”—also the title of a companion cinema program—as a form of deep attention. Consciously working against the speed of digital connectivity, this kind structured viewing within the gallery space attempts to hold an audience for what is now considered an excess of time: fifteen minutes. Exhibiting four films by four filmmakers, the museum does seem to be making up for lost time.
Dan Eisenberg’s The Unstable Object II, is one of the films on view here. The reveal, or the cinematic insert, is one of its pleasures. Taken from the filmmaker’s in-depth exploration of contemporary ways of working, this episode (the second of nine) plays with the sensation of shock within the scenario of the factory. Onscreen, when the shape of a human foot is removed from a mold, spontaneous laughter is elicited within the space. A defensive response, recognition is further effected by toes lined up on a shelf, bringing a weird surprising sensation. This is Ottobock, a medtech company that has produced “naturally artificial” prosthetics since 1919.
Losing a limb may be like misplacing a set of keys. Or because it can never be retrieved, it may be closer to missing a step on a flight of stairs. It is a course not taken voluntarily. Prosthetic arms and legs only approximate what had been before. Designed for injured veterans and victims of industrial accidents, they will inevitably outlive the one who carries one. Propping fantasies of unity and completeness, they will always be poor imitations.
Adding to the overall strangeness is the film’s undisturbed camera position. Nearly a parody of the disinterested camera-eye, there is only one camera move in the entire piece, and it scans, downward from right to left, as if it were a machine shop drill. The Buster Keaton boredom of a single worker peers over his eyeglasses, analyzing a metallic “bone,” tapping it with a small hammer on an anvil once. He looks again, before tossing it onto a pile of identical pieces.
Eisenberg will be present for discussion Friday, April 1st after a 7:00 pm screening of the first of his series, The Unstable Object I. —Mary Billyou
What’s Showing Today? Thursday, January 28, 2016
Featured Screening: Glenn Ligon “We Need to Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is” at Luhring Augustine. Post by Mary Billyou:
“Not that I don’t trust white people… it’s just in the night.” – Richard Pryor
Now installed at Luhring Augustine’s space in Bushwick is Glenn Ligon’s We Need to Wake Up Cause That’s What Time It Is. Presented on seven screens, Ligon’s appropriation of Richard Pryor‘s Live on the Sunset Strip employs transgressive techniques inspired by fan, pirate, and consumer culture. Through Ligon’s obsessive investment in Pryor’s original 1982 comedy/concert film, an alternative history is elicited. Even though he faithfully follows the set eighty-minute timeline, Ligon’s free use of elision and reframing renders Live ultimately into a readerly text.
Signal degradation reveals Live’s reproduction and bootleg status. Frame stability falters near the center of the video image, not in its usual location on the edges. The wandering point recalls those anonymous red laser pointers bouncing onscreen in packed movie theaters. Ligon’s shifting point is inside out, interacting and affecting the image, blurring it into extended delay.
Remarkably, Ligon has removed the original’s sound, frustrating his audience into looking deeper at Pryor’s physicality: his body, his delivery, and his presentation. A dandy, Pryor is dressed in his SundayBest, with a searing red suit, black tie and gold boots. His belt buckle has an interesting design and he dons a boutonnier. On further research, major durations of “dead air” are another intentional omission of nearly all the reverse shots where once a weirdly affirming, mostly white audience had been.
Recalling early cinematic attempts to describe a body in motion, Ligon’s Live attends to Pryor’s masterful sleight-of-hand performance. Drawing out the intensity of the unsaid and its cumulative effects upon the body, Pryor reverberates with unspoken emotion. Within seconds we see him shift between multiple antagonistic characters, from figures of punishing authority to the frightened disbelief of a child.
The white space of the gallery is transformed into the dark space of the cinema, questioning the white cube’s claim to “neutrality.” The “darkness” of the cinema has historically held the fear of the unknown, contamination, temptation, violation, etc. Frankly addressing the lingering effects and suppressed traumas of slavery, Glenn Ligon directs us to the well-worn path that racism has repeatedly cut through The United States. What We Said The Last Time, an accompanying exhibition, will be presented at Luhring Augustine’s Chelsea location from February 27 through April 2, 2016. —Mary Billyou
Today is the final screening of Far From Vietnam, a collectively produced experimental feature film from 1967. The film’s creative personnel includes Joris Ivens, William Klein, Claude Lelouch, Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and Alain Resnais. Additional material and support came from M. Ray, Agnés Varda, and countless other technical crew.
Presaging Marker’s A Grin Without A Cat by about forty years, Far From Vietnam employs documentary footage, personal testimony, narration, and a theatrical presentation of a crisis of faith. This diverse material is presented along with the experimental techniques of image deterioration, montage editing, re-filming, and sound/image relay. Underground Cinema, and its deep connection to the avant-garde, is in full play here, intentionally revealing ideology’s crucial role in supporting both hegemony and militarism.
Shared memory, and the distance evoked by its repression, is one of the acknowledged subjects of the film. Apathy, frustration, and despair are real effects of this experience, and they are alluded to by descriptions of living underground: “above us, the apocalypse,” “choking, no air,” and “there was nothing left to do, but go underground, like an animal, and hide.” Faced with the terrible force of the American military, the varied responses of domestic dissent seem like helpless cries.
We like to tell ourselves that we are a peaceful nation; that war is for other people, other cultures. That violence is for others. Far From Vietnam reminds us of the difficult fact that evil resides here at home as well. Actual history is recounted in the film, drawing an inexorable line from France’s colonization of Viet Nam to President Johnson’s declaration of war in 1964. Footage of arguments on the streets of New York underline the ugly side of America, and how easily the familiar smiling mask is discarded.
The film does provide two encouraging responses. They are also distinct calls to revolution. Godard, his eye on his eyepiece, urges us to find the Vietnam within ourselves, and to free ourselves from our prisons, be they economic or creative. And Castro, on a hillside in Cuba, conveys that Vietnam has given the world a gift. Their gift to us shows how the poor can resist the rich. By way of only a strong belief in their own moral self-determination, Vietnam is able to survive bombardment from the largest military force in history.
It is surprising when English is finally spoken in this film: a widow recounts the death of her husband on American soil. Norman Morrison was a Quaker who doused himself with kerosene and set himself on fire outside the Pentagon office of Robert McNamara. At the family table, with her young daughter on her lap, the widow relates the event, and amazingly, she recognizes aloud that his death makes sense. According to her husband’s beliefs, the privilege of wealth and safety seemed arbitrary to him; the knowledge that children were regularly being burned to death by Napalm was enough for him. He extended his understanding and equality by taking his own life in the very same way. —Mary Billyou
My first review I wrote for Screen Slate (08/21/13):
Currently showing at Luhring Augustine’s space in Bushwick is Ão, a 16mm film loop installation from 1981. The maker is Tunga, an interdisciplinary artist from Brazil, and the simplicity of the piece is stunning. Influenced by both Tropicalia and Russian Constructivism, Tunga’s Ão is formally striking, strange, ominous, and surprisingly timely.
The loop itself encompasses a diameter of about forty feet within the gallery, traveling along roller bearings seated on stands about two feet off the ground. The projector shines black and white footage directly on to the gallery wall. The pronounced horizontal quality of the loop brings the viewer into the space, challenging one to walk directly around its fragile structure. Simultaneously, the physical verticality of the film strip as it passes through the gate of the projector is brought to the mind.
The projected image is of an interminable tunnel, with no beginning and no end, and the sound system repeats the eponymous phrase from Frank Sinatra’s Night and Day, its campy luxury repeating over and over ad infinitum. The actual site of this never-ending path is the Dois Irmãos Tunnel in Rio de Janeiro. The tunnel connects two disparate neighborhoods, Rocinha, a notoriously rough favela, and Leblon, one of the richest and chiquest in Rio. It is commonly said that Rocinha gets tossed the trash of Leblon.
The tunnel has also been named alternatively in honor of Zuzu Angel, a Brazilian celebrity who died here mysteriously five years earlier, in 1976. Immediately before her death, she rallied fervently on behalf of her son, an outspoken political activist, who had been kidnapped, tortured, and made to disappear. On his behalf, she desperately wrote to many of her American colleagues, including Hollywood actresses Joan Crawford, Kim Novak, and Liza Minelli. She also reached out to American politicians Henry Kissinger and Ted Kennedy. Unfortunately, her voice was not heard, and her death, originally ruled an accident, was later determined to be caused by the Brazilian military police.
The effects of the aftershocks of that terrible event repeat again today in Brazil’s social unrest over a corrupt and unresponsive government. Or maybe it was just one event in a long series of nights and days, days and nights. A courageous piece, Ão eulogizes the hopeless glamour of Zuzu Angel, recognizing that in the end, her privilege could not protect her. —Mary Billyou