At local hangouts in New York City, you’ll most likely find MONO NO AWARE asserting itself as a 6 × 9 inch yellow-and-black flier. Echoing iconic Kodak packaging, the flier announces emerging potential, in the form of workshops, including: Shooting Hi-Con, Liquid Light Projector Performance Techniques, Traveling Mattes, Direct Animation, Flat-bed Editing, 3D Anaglyph 16mm Filmmaking, Non-Toxic Hand-Processing with Coffee, and their new offering: How to Build Your Own Motion Picture Lab.
If the words MONO NO AWARE (pronounced a-WAH-ré) sound strange to you, it may be because they come from the other side of the planet: it is Japanese (物の哀れ). An ancient term, it dates to the Heian period, ca. 8th century A.D. Probably Buddhist, it refers to a connection with or a yearning for the ephemeral. The term is further associated with melancholy over the loss of parents, ancestors, and a shared past. A well known phrase in Japan, it is nearly overlooked because as an aesthetic, it seems to infuse culture and life itself.
Here in Brooklyn, MONO NO AWARE is the name of a grassroots organization of people who share an interest in and a concern for the materiality of film and the experiences produced by its projection. Pointing backwards in time to a not-so distant past, MONO NO AWARE presents a willful resistance to relinquishing the structures and tools of traditional, celluloid-based filmmaking. An artists’ initiative, MONO NO AWARE meets regularly face-to-face, within and around the spaces of the cinema, the lab, and the workshop. Equipment rentals are available, as are development chemistry kits. Film stock is for sale. The office is also home to a library of books addressing film history, theory, and moving image culture. Open for business, MONO’s slogan is: WE ARE A FILM POSITIVE COMMUNITY.
Four years ago, film archivist and projectionist Julian Antos wrote, “Depending on who you talk to, motion picture film is either dead, floundering, or very much alive.” Posting in the online forum of the Chicago Film Society, Antos’s participation in the conversation about contemporary film experience addressed the new German film manufacturer ORWO, the first real option for filmmakers if Kodak really did disappear. MONO NO AWARE also developed within this precarious moment and bravely partnered with ORWO by organizing their first raw stock sales.
Myself, I had been in disbelief: didn’t Kodak realize there was an immense, faithful consumer base of independent filmmakers, we who bought Kodak film every chance we could? I wanted to see with my own eyes if Kodak’s disappearance were really so. Determined, and with a handful of grants, I trudged to midtown one chilly morning to Kodak’s offices on the sixth floor of an office building on 31st St. And 9th Ave. Nodding to the doorman, I took the elevator, and proceeded to the glass doors, behind which were dark, evacuated offices. No posted information, nothing. Just me, a carpeted hallway, and locked doors. I found myself knocking on the side door (possibly the service entrance?); I knocked louder. A composed woman wearing navy blue answered. I asked her what happened. The only one remaining in the offices, she communicated to me that Kodak would soon stop making 16mm film entirely.
She smiled and gave me an address downtown where I could still purchase 16mm film. Later, I realized, the address was like a matryoshka doll, found inside Panavision’s newly downsized offices (also strange); there I found a single Kodak representative. He sat behind a desk in a small windowless room. I bought ten 100-foot rolls of XX 7222 from him.
In the 1960s, artist filmmakers like Jack Smith bought $15 daylight spools of 16mm film from street level Army & Navy stores. In a land of post-war plenty, underground filmmaking came alive with this format. There are many reasons why 16mm appeals to both seasoned professionals and the first-come amateur, but there are three basics: it's economical and its equipment is lightweight. When projected, discerning the difference between 35mm or the smaller gauge 16mm still isn’t easy.
Censorship comes in many forms, and one is through the controlled scarcity of material with which an artist works. On the subject, Tacita Dean wrote an eloquent letter to The Guardian:
It is not as though they are giving up the chemicals and going dry. But they are stopping 16mm print because the cinema industry does not need it anymore, and it is they who . . . are dictating that movies go digital and celluloid be phased out. Printing 16mm is an irritant to them, as it is time away from printing feature films, and features are the industry and all that matters. Pitched against this, art is voiceless and insignificant.
The precarity of economic and cultural situations like this are all-too familiar now. What appears to be a given suddenly shows itself to be slipping away on unknown terms. Decisions are made without the input of users. It is an insult: hundreds of thousands of skilled technicians’ future work, art, and livelihoods are rendered vulnerable. More than likely, this is another example of capitalism in motion: how laborers (workers, craftsmen, technicians, projectionists, engineers, machinists, chemists, artists, preservationists, etc.) Are framed as merely a natural resource to be used, and then tossed aside.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the hegemony of Kodak had been nearly complete; one of the largest firms in the United States, it had produced the first mass-produced handheld camera: the Brownie. Later, their designers produced the Carousel slide projector. They also provided raw stock for big business: Hollywood. In 2012, Kodak declared bankruptcy. A remarkable response to the film industry’s systemic crisis, MONO NO AWARE sidesteps all the drama and dives deep into unofficial filmmaking.
Formed initially as an expanded cinema exhibition in 2007, MONO NO AWARE continues to emphasize screenings and the shared, time-based experiences of film viewing. Eleven years later, other activities have been added to the docket: now, preservation is a main priority, including intercepting the equipment, mechanisms, and structures supporting filmmaking, which otherwise might be headed for the scrap heap. Slowly, after years of communication, MONO founder Steve Cossman has developed relationships with both farflung and nearby organizations, collaboratively reinventing the future of 16mm film. For production houses that have reached points of no future, MONO provides an open door through which to proceed.
Gearheads with a DIY aesthetic and an autonomous streak flock to MONO. For these artist engineers, reinvention is a key skill, as is imagination and the ability to find potential in salvaged materials. Clyde Shaffer, a former workshop participant now playing a more active role in MONO, is one of these inspired technicians: he has built a modular linear processing machine out of PVC pipes and 3D printed rollers. His at-home processing machine can be broken down and stored in a New York closet. In September, at an international laboratory meeting at Laboratoria del Cine in Mexico City, Shaffer and Cossman presented the printer’s design specifications, open source links for the 3D printed elements, and detailed instructions on its assembly.
Previously, Cossman and Alex Faoro picked up a Schmitzer wet-gate contact printer from a sterile lab in Los Angeles where they had to wear one-piece Tyvek suits, face masks, paper booties, gloves, and goggles merely for entry. The lab, called Golden Era Productions, is no less inside the hallowed Church of Scientology in Los Angeles. The two drove the pristine contact printer across the country to Brooklyn, wishing they also had been able to take a photograph of a portrait of L. Ron Hubbard with his beloved Bolex.
Another recent notable save: the remaining parts inventory from Oxberry, a key designer and manufacturer of complex, high-end filmmaking tools like the brilliant, Academy Award winning “Liquid Gate” and the coveted 16mm animation stand. The president of Oxberry contacted Cossman, urging him to retrieve equipment from their New Jersey warehouse ASAP. From this inventory, MONO has recently made available a catalogue of parts so that filmmakers may continue using and understanding what these machines are capable of producing.
Believing that “advancements don’t have to replace [technology],” Cossman works out exchanges, trading equipment for other needed services and vice versa. These services include: technical know-how, residency opportunities, specs, and the chance to exhibit work. Recently, he crated a 16mm flatbed editing table with other equipment to be sent to Time Frame, a new artists’ lab opening by Sandy Ding in Beijing.
Europe and Canada have led the world with thriving artists’ labs for quite some time now (Mire in France, no.w.here in the U.K., LIFT in Canada, laborberlin in Germany, etc.). This might be because film was born in France, where, compared to the tenacity of George Eastman and Thomas Edison in the U.S.A., there was less concern about securing patents on the unpredictable new invention. Outside the U.S.A., there have always been multiple ways of producing motion pictures.
Once an industry giant, Kodak had employed over a hundred thousand workers just at the Rochester factory alone. Who knows how many worked at the commercial labs, as film technicians, editors, negative cutters, projectionists, distributors, etc. Currently employing only a fraction of its workers as it did a generation ago, Kodak miserly produces limited batches of stock that it sells “. . . Until inventory is depleted.” Now, since The Great Yellow Father has faltered, artists’ labs have been popping up even in the U.S.A.: agx in Boston, Negativland in New York City, mirrorlab in Minneapolis, After Image in Milwaukee, etc.
Where have all of the workers gone, with their shared complex knowledge of photographic development? Where has all of the equipment gone? Some have retired, some equipment has been destroyed. But not everyone has thrown up their hands and given up. And not all of the equipment has been dismantled. Kodak’s misstep opens up a possibility for change.
Now is the time to stop, think, and reconfigure business-as-usual. What we can leave behind: industrial practices of dumping chemicals into waterways without foresight; and reliance on an ineffectual Environmental Protection Agency to regulate out of control businesses. Also worthy of discard are the static hierarchies of Hollywood film crews: the limiting roles of “creative personnel” and everyone else; the inherent exploitation of commercial systems. What we can embrace: unofficial histories and interpretations and the breaking down of the wall of craft, especially those with a high barrier of entry.
MONO is not mass culture. Instruction is not didactic but facilitated; tools and technology are taught—aesthetic taste, genres, and styles are open to individual interpretation and exploration. Here, “each film is as unique as each person who walks in through the door.”
Social relevance holds value at MONO, as do the interconnected relationships between participants, producing what the group calls “connectivity.” Although MONO has an educational initiative, it distinguishes itself from film schools. In fact, many of the participants are refugees from such places. Cossman says, “It’s not a gym membership,” encouraging experimentation. MONO creates spaces for spontaneous learning without the anxious pressure of being in an elite club, as education seems more often than not these days.
Compassion and safety can be found in these spaces. Ultimately, what is produced is a form of social practice, in which authentic engagement comes about with full commitment and being co-present in the same space at the same time. Through the framework of small gauge filmmaking, an inter-subjective, collective movement toward concrete thinking is situated. When asked why MONO NO AWARE is important, Super 8mm Workshop Leader Alex Faoro responded, “Solace.”
Self-awareness takes practice. Occupational therapists employ mnemonic devices and memory games to bring attention back to the present. As the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl argued, memory plays a part in consciousness, perception, and the living present. More than half of MONO’s workshops are animation-based, emphasizing imaginative play by way of opening the doors of perception. Persistence of Vision, a cognitive capability discovered by the cinema, is not just a delayed dream connecting discrete frames exhibited at 1/24th of a second. Expanded, it is a form of inner vision. In the dark, we generate second sight.
- “ORWO at the End of the World,” Julian Antos, Chicago Film Society Blog, October 7, 2014.
- “Save Celluloid, for art’s sake,” by Tacita Dean, The Guardian, Feb. 22, 2011.
- Hegemony: The New Shape of Global Power, by John Agnew, 2005.
- See thingiverse.com
- Cossman in conversation.
- Kodak Technical Director Beverly Pasterczyk in an email dated May 23, 2018.
- Faoro in conversation.
- Cossman in conversation.
- On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, Edmund Husserl, p. 10.
MARY BILLYOU is a practicing filmmaker whose work accesses cultural memory by directing attention to institutional frames and their supporting mechanisms. Combining the amateur, punk and feminism, she consciously engages film as a readerly text. In Spring 2016, she completed a new 16mm film entitled GUN, HAT, GIRL?