CHRISTOPHER WILLIAMS with David Gregory Lawson

This summer’s career retrospective of Christopher Williams at the Museum of Modern Art (through November 2) includes a marquee-ready photograph that is remarkable in its conceptual simplicity—unpretentious and tactile. It’s of a 15mm Zeiss Distagon lens cut in half, displayed in cross-section with the pieces of glass appearing like phases of the moon stacked atop each other, pieces of silver- and copper-colored metal becoming labyrinth-like bends and avenues. This bifurcated object floats in an abstracted black space, à la innumerable advertisements for any product you can imagine, now useless as a tool for vision, now only a subject for study and appreciation, a collection of hard lines and the contrasting surface textures of smooth metal and glass. The photograph’s title is a paragraph-long list of technical specifications for the subject. 

This is all to say that, amid insistent appraisals of his work as being “challenging but rewarding” (which Williams reacts to with a polite and knowing “Yeah, yeah”), these are photographs for people who simply enjoy looking at things, who revel in the soft confusion and manifold intricacies involved in “the act of seeing with one’s own eyes”: appropriate enough, as that photograph of the lens is a kind of autopsy itself.

Williams’s retrospective is complemented by a Carte Blanche slate of programs he’s organized for MoMA’s film department. Each of the seven evenings runs at least three hours, each is adorned with purposefully broad but suggestive titles ranging from “Tenderness” to “Economy,” and each begins with a flicker film followed by Andy Warhol’s Screen Test of Penelope Palmer. It’s a diverse and provocative series that bestows a tacit, loving commentary on the practice of film curation and viewing. And it’s a kind of personally motivated compendium of sights and sounds for those taken by, as Williams himself puts it, “the Scopophilic condition.”

In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni

David Gregory Lawson (Rail): As a start, can we discuss your selection of The Flicker and Arnulf Rainer at the beginning of every program? It seems to me like a way to calibrate an audience’s vision, while also putting front and center the materiality and physicality of images. Was that on your mind in choosing these films?

Christopher Williams: The short answer is yes. The longer answer would be something like: my film program was conceived in the context of a survey or retrospective show at an American museum but also within the context of my using film a great deal as a teacher in Düsseldorf, at the Kunstakademie. Within the context of teaching, one of the more interesting developments in recent years has been the fact that the students, as involved as they are with the idea of the cinematic, actually see very little projected film. The other thing is that I also see the program as setting forth a series of models for production and for vision. Within a film series where they are presented week after week in relationship to other films it actually becomes a kind of touchstone. I really wanted to create a space. I think those films have the possibility of retuning you on a kind of electromagnetic level. Even though I know that there are digital filmmakers who build in a kind of flicker effect to their films, it’s still a different experience.

I don’t want to be metaphysical but I think a little bit of some free jazz players, somebody like Sun Ra who talks about his music as reorganizing people’s cognitive capability and their construction in order to prepare them for the next level of consciousness as he imagines it, and I think the flicker film is a very basic fine-tuning event.

Rail: When I initially looked at your program, honestly, I thought there was something wrong, like a typo in the notes—just the sheer length of each of the programs. For instance, “Choreography” is well over four hours long. On the other hand, to see Bruce Conner’s Breakaway transition into Lawrence Weiner’s Altered to Suit transition into Dreyer’s Ordet, and how it attunes you to the different ways the performer’s gestures function and are exhibited in both films is quite remarkable. There’s also the sense of this darkened space in which all of these sensorial artifacts and experiences are contained, perhaps connecting the gallery experience with the cinema experience. I was wondering if you almost thought of treating the cinema as a space that could or should be wandered into and out of.

Williams: I’m not interested in it being more like a gallery experience. I think if one were to leave and come back, it’s okay and normal, but I wasn’t interested in the idea of people loitering and only taking in fragments. Almost everyone who looked at the program said to me: “What, are you nuts? No one’s going to sit and watch this much stuff.” I thought about this in preparing to have a talk with you—this weekend I went to Berlin because the historian and critic Douglas Crimp just turned 70. There was a colloquium and a celebration and a birthday party and he presented a new chapter from his memoir which is being published next year, there were several papers over three days and the night that he read from his memoir they showed Film About a Woman Who… by Yvonne Rainer. In the discussions the next day one of the things that came up was how irritating the film can be, because it’s at one minute fascinating and riveting and in the next minute kind of boring. One of the subjects we discussed is what I guess now is a historical condition for film people and people involved with contemporary art to just subject themselves to extreme duration, films like Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale, or any number of Warhol’s films, and Ken Jacobs’s Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son. It was once completely a normal experience for us to subject ourselves to hours of very specific kinds of spectatorship. Another way of approaching this program is that all of these things are historical, perceptual models, as well. In the case of “Choreography” I guess I could have done what I was trying to do with clips but that would be a diagram. You know, to go from Breakaway to Altered to Suit to Ordet to The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, to try to talk about the relationship of the body to the frame, of gesture to movement, the acceleration and deceleration of the body, of the language, all of these things could be demonstrated with clips and fleshed out by a good lecturer but what I was thinking about wouldn’t be experienced.

Rail: Something I talk about constantly with programmers and people who write about film is this idea of “the personal,” and the quite possibly prescriptive, ideas about how a movie “should” be viewed or how cinema “can be” engaged with as embedded in a program, and that embedding as something both personal and conceptual. Increasingly people writing about film are also programming and this analytical quality seeps into the programs’ construction. But this conceptual and thematic and digressive approach we’re talking about seems significantly lacking on the whole. Why do you think that’s the case?

Williams: Another historical change, I believe, goes back to when I talked about the two forms of desire for cinema, one being for the absent cinema, for the absent object, the film you simply couldn’t see because it was unavailable to you. One of the ways that those cinematic objects were made present, for me at least, in the early ’70s, was through writing and there was another cinema, the textual cinema, the cinema that existed in Xeroxes, in the periodicals of the library and in anthologies. Andrew Sarris and Jonas Mekas and Manny Farber were some of those people and Farber was so great because of his knowledge of avant-garde art and avant-garde filmmaking but also his absolute love of Hollywood and the difference between his writing and the writing of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics was really important. I think that the boundaries between these different types of cinema were really not acknowledged as rigid boundaries, they were very porous for Farber. He could move smoothly between these forms of culture and that’s something that I think informs the ideas in this program. I haven’t thought about him for a long time but he was a very influential figure for me on that level. My experience of it is informed by things that are older, by virtue of what I’ve been up to, but when you brought up Jean Rouch earlier: I spent two or three years going back and forth to Paris recording Rouch myself. He demonstrated an unconditional love for the cinematographic—he would watch anything projected.

Rail: I wonder if there’s a moral charge at play here. I mean that in regards to the opening-up, the giving yourself over to the series. Not that this is something unbendable, not that there’s a moral framework but—

Williams: A young artist told me that the problem with my generation was that we didn’t know how to compartmentalize our activity with art because artists my age didn’t have health insurance, we didn’t get our teeth worked on, we really gave ourselves over to this thing we believed in. And what is it that you’re giving yourself over to? I’m uncomfortable with the moral aspect, but not really in a way. What are you giving yourself over to? It’s one of the last spaces in culture that allows for speculative thinking, that allows for an individual or a work to transform your subjectivity. You give yourself over to Ordet, you’re allowing yourself to be transformed by this work and this man’s vision of cinema but within that film is the idea of unconditional faith. At the end of Ordet I couldn’t leave the theater because I was crying and I was so embarrassed that I was crying in this public space. One other person stayed behind for the same reason and it turned out to be someone I didn’t know but that I soon met, a poet in Los Angeles, and we have an understanding to this day based on this experience that we shared. So I think the combination of it being a free, speculative, emotional, philosophical, political space is something worth fighting for and hanging onto and maybe I’ve constructed something like temporal shelters or structures to allow the freedom for those kinds of ideas to take place.

Rail: I’m also uncomfortable with the idea of this moral aspect, but like you said, not really. It’s certainly unfashionable but something I can’t help gravitating toward from time to time.

Williams: There’s a kind of snotty, shitty way to approach the durational issue in relationship to expectations and daily life and normal behavior and what you can expect of people. This is really kind of wrong but I’m willing to say it: let’s say for the “Choreography” program, for someone who would complain about the duration of it, I might say in relationship to being able to see a good print of Ordet or The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, really, you have something better to do? You can’t do this every day, for sure, but what could be more important than watching these things? It’s not because I’m presenting them. They’re great works, this isn’t my eccentric take on things—these are very important works of art. With Germany in Autumn, for example, the Fassbinder in a way has some kind of parallel with Dust and The Forgotten Space; they feed back into one another. The Fassbinder contribution to Germany in Autumn is so personal and such a claustrophobic, painful segment within that film and it brings up the panoramic and detailed thing I was trying to explain with The Forgotten Space and Dust while also collapsing ideas about the personal and the political into one another.

Rail: Returning to the physical and durational, I find it increasingly difficult to engage with a film in a way that I can allow it to envelop me when viewing it on a computer screen. There does seem to be a real rigidity as far as the kinds of experiences sought after by people interested in cinema as an art form and there’s a strong divide between where and how you have an interactive experience versus film exhibition with some extra thing going on, like a musical performance, which is often treated as a novelty.

Death Proof

Williams: The term “rigidity” strikes a chord because I think that in a general, overall cultural and political context, we’re living in a consensus culture. Everything, in the name of inclusiveness and democracy, everybody has a say in, the way that things should be, the type of product we should be viewing, the conditions under which we should be viewing them. There’s instant feedback, they like this, they don’t like that. I was just involved with an exhibition called Capitalist Realism and part of the contemporary condition, part of the idea of Capitalist Realism, is that there is no alternative to the system as it currently exists. That’s not only discussed in political terms, but in cultural terms I feel that to be the case, as well. I just finished two books and the discussions about the production of the book, the marketing of the book, everything was so naturalized and internalized on the part of the other participants: books should have an image with a smiling face on the cover, books should have the name of the most well-known figure involved with the production of the book as big as possible on the cover, all of these elements are taken as a given. Talking about the “extended” duration of some of my programs, it’s just that automatically everyone will agree, “Well, that’s simply too long.” But where does that “too long” come from? “Too long” in relationship to what? Is it the 30 minutes of a television show or the 30 seconds of a commercial, where do these “natural” rules come from? I really feel like I’m almost talking to people who have voluntary constraints on their perception.

I think that what’s done in the name of populism and inclusion is actually dumbing things down and providing fewer cultural options for the people who are being included. I think curators really internalize that value system and in a way they have to, they’re going to be gauged by attendance. Exhibitions have become like the box office. The amounts of people who come to the shows are now an element in the decision to put on an exhibition. How it relates to the physical is another thing. I’ve found that curators who’ve been through curatorial studies programs really think of the art as being evidence that supports a thesis that they’re putting forward in their programming, and I imagine there’s a real counterpart in film programming.

You pick a topic or you pick a thesis and you use films to illustrate that idea, the film as essay form, the film as expression of racial identity, etc., etc. The physical dimension of the art is not a determining factor in their thinking. It’s almost an afterthought. The architecture, the way a work addresses the spectator physically seems to be considered one of the least important features. It’s much more important that all the bases, all the positions are covered to make an argument that is not the artist’s argument but the programmer’s argument.

On the “Entertainment” program, I had an idea that didn’t work out. There’s a work by a colleague of mine who presents almost three-and-a-half hours worth of filmic material but without any visual material. I was unable to show this film, or not show this film that isn’t a film, for reasons that I can’t really talk about. But the initial goal was for the “Entertainment” section to be even darker and I mean physically darker. I had the idea of two evenings at MoMA that were almost completely dark. After the Kubelka and the Warhol you would just have films that were primarily dark and I say primarily because with the Guy Debord film it has subtitles so there is something to look at there in a traditional way. It was really a blow when I couldn’t do it, and there are very good reasons why I couldn’t do it. It was an issue with the producer of the film and not with MoMA. But it would have really had its force being in the middle of this big machine called MoMA that’s all about turnover in so many ways and the conflict between fine art and the idea of a mass public. So this is actually a lighter version than I imagined, is what I’m trying to tell you. In talking about watching people sleeping, I find critical films like Society of the Spectacle extremely entertaining.

Rail: The “Entertainment” program definitely has a simplicity, a minimalism, a darkness but maybe the better word is negative, because it’s contrary to the general understanding of entertainment.

Williams: As producers, as writers, as artists, as programmers, as curators, when you sit and say, “This is too much” or you say, “This is too little,” when you say, “Nobody will want to do this,” when you say, “It’ll be great to have two nights of darkness … but that’s not going to happen.” When we stop ourselves from making propositions like that, for whom are we speaking? For whom is that censorship being enacted? That’s a condition that is very present in curatorial practice, both for film and for art exhibition.


David Gregory Lawson

DAVID GREGORY LAWSON is a writer based in New York City.