In June, I caught up with Eric at the Flaherty Film Seminar, where he was a featured artist, and asked him to reflect on issues of this Critics Page. This text (and the following piece by Jesse McLean, another featured artist) is an adaptation of his responses to my questions about how he sees his work in relation to cinematic and gallery exhibition contexts.
The fact that I don’t have any formal training either as a filmmaker or as a visual artist means that I was never introduced to moving images within the context of a tradition. Most of my film education is what I’ve watched, and I’ve pursued my interest in how moving images work outside of any formal organizing of these lineages. In my mind, I make no distinction whatsoever between experimental film, video art, narrative, and documentary, and I don’t identify as being part of any of these traditions.
My practice tends to be research-based, so I start with something I observe—a social, political, or poetic phenomenon I’m interested in—and then I start thinking about how to formalize it and once I know how, if it does become a film, questions of duration, questions of linearity (whether it has a beginning, middle, and an end), or if it’s a loop in which the point of entry is irrelevant, this will determine whether it should be installed in space or whether it should be the kind of object that circulates in screening environments. A lot of the time, I do films that can actually exist in both contexts, even though they tend to be much longer than what one would typically show in the context of an exhibition space. And if that’s the case, I try to impose upon that space the constraints of cinema—with screening times, and with some kind of cinematic environment, a good projection and good sound. But when I do that, I’m also aware that the experience is going to be different than a typical screening context in a cinema or festival, and so I will either augment the work, or propose it in parallel with other things, such as a publication, prints on the wall, or a performance. Then the work shifts: it becomes about the interaction between the film and the other materials on display. These other materials will look into other historiographies, other narratives, other ways of telling the story, visually or textually. I usually print a publication or libretto that one can take home and explore at a different time. I try to factor in the difference in experience of wandering into a space where a film has started by providing these additional layers. But I also expect that many people will treat the film like a film, and decide to come back in 20 minutes or an hour or tomorrow to watch it from the beginning. And you would be surprised by how many people do when you impose that temporality.
We live in an age where the sources of funding and distribution are shifting, and there are different opportunities now than there were before. What a film wants is to be seen, and you must nurture that want and make the context as favorable as possible. But at the same time, I’m fairly relaxed about how the works travel, whether that means putting them online, letting the files circulate, or handing out DVDs to whoever wants them. I have a hope that the films will be watched in a good context, but I’m not trying to excessively control something that cannot be controlled anymore.
I call my piece The Secession Sessions an exhibition rather than an installation because I’m not particularly interested in the tradition of installation art. I’m not somebody who spends a lot of time thinking about institutional critique. But I do try to create legibility around what I am doing with the space. In other words, I’m acknowledging that, for three hours a day, we are transforming this white cube into a black box, into something that could resemble a cinema, with screening times and markings on the floor to indicate where chairs should be placed. During the screenings the space is dark, and you can’t see the rest of the works in the space. During the rest of the day, we transform the white cube into the Abkhazian “Anembassy.” Demarcated on the floor with colored tape, the “Anembassy” has a desk, chairs, a flag, and the presence, for three hours a day, of a man who sits there, greets you, and is available for an encounter. His name is Max and he used to be the Foreign Minister of the unrecognized state of Abkhazia. He happens to also be the subject of the film that screens in the same space the other half of the day. In fact the setup of the cinema is still visible, but there’s nothing on the screen and the lights are on. The emphasis here is on the fact that encountering Max at his office, the Anembassy, and having a personal discussion with him, is an entirely different experience than encountering Max on screen as the subject of my film. Two different ways of dealing with the question of representation: political representation through unofficial guerilla personal diplomacy versus representation as it relates to moving images.
The third element of The Secession Sessions was the discursive program, which was important to inscribe as part of the exhibition and not as something ancillary to the exhibition. So we created a podium and a different set of markings on the floor that demarcated how this space is used on Saturdays when the entire art center is taken over by various forms of conversation, presentation, or performance with various people who are invited every week.
It can be difficult to communicate all of this, and the posters get really complicated with different screening times and so forth, but in the end there’s some kind of confusion whereby I’m hoping that we can gain acceptance of an element of surprise. What we see in this exhibition is always related to the question of stateless states and the problems related to secession, national identity, and self-determination. The Secession Sessions open up many points of entry into these questions, different ways of looking at these problems, and a film alone cannot do what the other elements do.