Roger Beebe with Jordan Cronk
Writing for The Brooklyn Rail in July 2015 on the fraught dynamic between experimental film and artists’ moving image for the gallery, filmmaker Roger Beebe expressed an “objection to this relabeling of his practice under an art world rubric.” In the two years since, Beebe has made tentative inroads into the gallery, primarily under the auspices of his title as Associate Professor of Art at Ohio State University. While this recalcitrant stance has borne some perverse installation pieces—including a short video shot on a cell phone and made to be displayed on an Amazon Kindle—Beebe remains committed to working on film. From the Super 8 and 16 mm landscape and suburban architectural studies that made up much of his early work, Beebe has in the last decade staked a reputation on an increasingly ambitious run of multi-projector performances that bring together films both new and old (and often of a found footage variety) in a single, man-powered, medium-specific spectacle.
Beebe recently brought Films for One to Eight Projectors to the film program at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival, one of the rare settings in which a celluloid-based performance piece coupling both the delicate strains of American indie band Holopaw and collateral fits of optical sound is not only welcome, but encouraged. Speaking about his evolving practice, which also manages to encompass a series of humorous, occasionally uncomfortable first-person video essays, Beebe is keenly perceptive and articulate about the interrogative nature of his process, traits which promise to continue to challenge conceptions of cinematic space and galvanize his many disparate artistic impulses.
Jordan Cronk (Rail): I’m curious if and how your thoughts might have changed since you wrote that article for the Brooklyn Rail in 2015?
Roger Beebe: I don’t know if it’s changed that much. But there have been some big things in the interim. I was forced to be part of a faculty show where they wanted me to install something. So, this little video I made on a cell phone, A Metaphor for the End of Just About Everything (2016), was my answer to that. It all came together in, like, three days, right at the deadline, because I was really having a crisis about trying to shoehorn something into the space. I talked to the people who run the gallery and we discussed how we could maybe just do like an Art21 kind of documentary about my multi-projector work, and maybe how that could stand in for the stuff they didn’t want to show. I also thought about putting in some of my 16 mm loops, but I knew they could break and would need to be attended to. So instead I ended up doing an artist’s talk about all the ideas I rejected as I was having this crisis about why my work wouldn’t work in a gallery setting. In some ways that just confirmed my sense that the gallery is just a bad way to show most of the kinds of things I’m interested in making.
I don’t want to make enemies, but I really hated the Dreamlands show at the Whitney. And it especially confirmed to me that when you’re taking moving-image work that isn’t made for the gallery and shoehorning it in there—like, say, Rose Hobart (1936)—it just makes no sense at all in that space. Obviously something like Light Describing a Cone (1973) is great, and it works specifically in that space. But a lot of the work in there didn’t seem to be helped by [that presentation]. I know it was a short piece of writing, but I actually don’t really remember what my hobby-horse was in that article. But I do continue to feel nervous about the economics of the art world and how experimental film has sidestepped that, even if it means we can’t make a living making experimental films.
Rail: One thing you mentioned in the piece was how you’re conflicted about making money teaching experimental film.
Beebe: It’s funny, I just saw a comment on an old article by Hito Steyerl someone posted on Facebook, where she said she was going to kidnap any 16 mm projector she saw in a gallery and donate it to an old-folks home, or something like that. In it she says we should embrace HD and communicate with what people are talking about nowadays, using these new tools to connect. It felt weird. And Mark Toscano responded to the post, predictably defending film’s honor and saying that what she’s talking about sounds like a full embrace of capitalism. And it makes sense in a weird way, since she’s somebody who thrives in the gallery world. I think we always inhabit the contradictions. I can’t pretend that I occupy an ideologically pure space, but I feel happy with the contradictions I’m living with—I think it serves the work, at least.
Rail: Are you trying with the gallery work you have made to reconcile both approaches, or reframe aspects of your work for these new contexts? Your Big Ears show was also presented at a museum.
Beebe: I don’t have a problem with a movie theater inside a museum—that was just sort of coincidental. I didn’t even know it would be at the museum. But it was a proper movie theater: dark room, tiered seating. There was some coming and going because it’s a festival, but most people seem to understand that this was something where you sit down and watch from the start to the end. I think you can make that space work. And to [Dreamlands curator] Chrissie Iles’s credit, she is interested in doing that inside the Whitney—though not quite successfully in most cases, mainly because there was just so much crammed on one floor, and the spaces weren’t contained, and the seating, when there was seating, wasn’t that comfortable. That said, I don’t want to be completely closed to the idea of installation. I mean, there’s great installation work. There’s plenty of stuff out there that just wouldn’t work theatrically. But I don’t know quite how to get my brain there.
Rail: Let’s go a back a bit, to the 2006 – 07 period when you began to transition from found footage studies to primarily projector performances. What prompted that change of direction?
Beebe: I think it really grew out of the festival I ran in Chapel Hill in the ’90s, where we had a 16 mm projector, and a Super 8 projector, and toward the end, a video projector. There was always this sort of running between devices, which itself had a kind of performative element to it. So when I took a show from that festival on tour, I brought in the projectors and set them up. Although it wasn’t really articulated that way—these were just the devices I needed to make the show happen. On one tour in 2007 I had two 16 mm projectors, and I would use one to project while I was threading the other one—so I could go back and forth fast. I had positive and negative version of TB TX Dance (2006/07), and on the first night I was projecting on an unusually wide screen—and it always feels weird when your little 16 mm rectangle is just sitting there in the middle of this giant empty field of black. So, I really did just think, “What would it be like if I projected side by side?” So I went ahead and did it. And I really loved what happened that night. I was really excited by the kind of rhythmic complexity that emerged, because they weren’t perfectly in sync—in fact they drifted further as the projection went along. There was this kind of pulse that emerged that I couldn’t have planned myself. And I just liked the poor man’s Cinemascope aspect to it. Instead of the nice contained rectangle, it felt big and immersive and engaging in a way that the single 16 mm projection didn’t. So, I ended up doing that as the show closer for the entire tour. And it was the next year that I was asked to do a show at a planetarium in Macon, Georgia. That’s when I went crazy and did my first eight-projector piece. I had three video projections—that are no longer a part of it—and I had four 16 mm projectors, and at the last minute a friend gave me that East German animation that’s in Last Light of a Dying Star (2008/11), and it just fit so perfectly thematically with what I was doing that I went ahead and included a Super 8 projector as well. That’s when I knew I had my complete battery, and could now kind of compose within that.
Rail: How do you go about compiling which films you’re going to include in a given performance?
Beebe: Some of it is practical. There’s some flexibility built in to shows. Sometimes it has to do with the size of the space, or even the time we have to set up. I did a show the other day and was told we only had one hour to set up—the full set up takes two hours. So I ended up doing a five-projector version rather than eight. Other times I just want to rotate in some of the older films. I have something like sixteen years worth of solid work that I like to look at sometimes, or dust off. Sometimes it’s also just to see what different configurations of films look like together, how it builds from film to film. Once I tried to do a sixty-minute show that had three films with six or seven projectors, and I just couldn’t manage it physically. I just couldn’t get everything threaded up in time. So, there’s always that factor. I always use Beginnings (2010), the sound piece, before Last Light, because I know I need to rethread all the projectors. And I also like how the darkness sort of resets in that transition, and then when the images start to reemerge it feels exciting, with these faint, out-of-focus orbs.
Rail: I’m curious about the physical aspect of the performances. I was seated in front of the projectors at your Big Ears show, but I could still feel your movement as you jumped between projectors. How has the physical process evolved over the years?
Beebe: It’s been interesting to learn what I can and can’t do. I’ve timed myself changing a loop, and in theory I can do it in fifteen seconds. But in reality, when I’m actually doing it in the dark, when I’m hustling and running between projectors, or if I stumble or if I’m a second late getting there—it really derails me if I try to do it in less than, like, forty seconds. So, when I originally made SOUNDFILM (2015), I made a sort of digital maquette of it, and I built in some things that I just couldn’t do physically. So, in a weird way their form does respond to the material limits. For SOUNDFILM I didn’t want to lose the image and I realized adding a sixth projector would be the way to solve that. In theory, I could have twenty projectors and just have everything preloaded. It would make my life a lot easier.
Another hard part is just remembering where I need to be. I’m looking at the image. I’m listening to the sounds. I’m always sort of engaged with what’s physically right in front me—like, if I’m switching a reel out or something. But then I have to remember where the next thing is and I really do have to sprint sometimes. That’s why I don’t like people to be behind the projectors, especially during Last Light, which is a slower film. SOUNDFILM’s a little more chaotic, so maybe the chaos of me running between projectors is more welcome. But with Last Light I hate when I have to sprint down to the Super 8 projectors because people will actually see me. I mean, maybe it’s interesting. Maybe it’s a reminder that underneath this relaxing spectacle there’s this labor going on. But I would never want to be in a booth where the viewer couldn’t turn around and see what was happening. I do think the labor is part of the spectacle, but something in me still wants the screen to be seductive enough to keep you from turning around just to see me making it.
Rail: With the older films, you’re taking preexisting pieces and sort of re-contextualizing them through performance. Are most of the newer works made specifically for these performances?
Beebe: SOUNDFILM was really directly inspired by what I thought were some limitations in Last Light, with the way I used the soundtrack. I did a show at MassArt and someone said that there’s an irony to many of my soundtracks because I’m basically just hitting the spacebar on my laptop and then coordinating this whole analogue spectacle with the images. Like, why am I not doing this with the sound? And after that show I began to think about it and realized he was right and I should try and play with the sound more. So SOUNDFILM was made knowing I was going to use it [as the first film] to setup the show, and thinking about what I could do within that, what I could do with the optical track. I thought that planetarium show would be a one-off thing, but the response was just so crazy.
Rail: You said to me recently that you’ve been thinking about the relationship between found footage and the “found” landscapes of global capital and postmodern sprawl. Can you talk a bit about this in relation to the two periods of your career?
Beebe: It felt like something I had to address, because I write these artist statements where you have to kind of reconcile all the disparate impulses in your work. You know, “Roger Beebe is an artist who works with….” And for a while it was really hard to do that. But I knew there was something that united the periods, and it’s not just because I’m the one who made all the work. At one point it occurred to me that the world I’m pointing my camera at is not the natural world. I’m pointing my camera at the most artificial spaces—strip malls, signage, stuff like that. Sometimes there’s even contested ownership of things that are floating in the air. Once, when I shooting at McDonald’s, the manager came out and told me I couldn’t shoot their sign. And I was like, “But you put it up in the sky. I just want to shoot the sky. Can you move your sign?!” So, it occurred to me that it’s not so different to say I’m shooting the built landscape and shooting this world of images given to me. Because again: the transformation of the world into an image, a sort of Society of the Spectacle thing. This world is dominated by images in both the literal and figurative sense. All my work is an intervention in that desire to understand that world and to think about its relationship to capital, and to work against it from a critical place.
Rail: And from a self-critical place too, right? Maybe it comes through more overtly in your recent video essay work, but even in early films like S A V E (2006) and Strip Mall Trilogy (2001) you’re questioning your own ideas. You’re a character in many of your films.
Beebe: For sure. Historia Calamitatum (2014) was an attempt to feel a greater sense of risk. I feel like there’s something a little safe about the landscape films, where there are no people in front of the camera. It’s just me pointing my camera at buildings. I also felt there was something a little repetitive about them. I wanted to try something a little different, even though it’s not radically different—I had done video essay before. But laying bare my own emotional life—it felt like a new step. Even if I show a self-consciousness or a nervousness about my own artistic undertaking in S A V E, I don’t feel like I’m vulnerable so much as I’m intellectualizing a certain kind of problem. But as far as self-criticism, I have a few documentary projects that I’m stalled out on, partially because I’m so self-critical about the projects—I don’t want them to be just me wringing my hands for an hour. Even right now I have guilty feelings about talking so much about experimental film when immigrants are being deported and the world is basically going up in flames all around us. It’s hard to feel that removing dirt from a new HD transfer of my old Super 8 films is a meaningful way to spend my days. I think that self-critical impulse is really part of who I am.
Rail: Is there an urge to take on something more topical and less personal?
Beebe: I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s going to stay in a personal place. I’ve actually been shooting Super 8 footage for more than ten years for a project about Amazon’s regional distribution centers. In thinking about the relationship between the virtual economy and physical space, it’s an evolution in some ways from the architectural and landscapes films I’ve made. I want to think about the relationship between that and the internet and the new economy that they’re a part of.
The other big project that’s in my crosshairs is this project about aging. Hope Tucker sort of dismissed it as my midlife crisis film, and I think it partially is. My dad has Parkinson’s, and just seeing him trapped in a body that’s betraying him has been really powerful. I want to think about that in a complex way that has some small essayistic video sections, but also incorporates the multi-projector approach. I hope that in the next two or three years that project will turn into a full program, one custom-built to be a program rather than something cobbled together after the fact. It’ll include parts that are more personal, but I also have a bunch of films from my archive that I’m looking at for it too. So it’ll be interesting to build it for that purpose, to deploy little portions of video, and get those out of the way, and then incorporate these more lyrical sections. That’s really my biggest ambition.
JORDAN CRONK is a Los Angeles-based film critic and programmer and contributor to Cinema Scope, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Reverse Shot, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.