After the Garden

By Julian Ross

meat-luther-price.jpgMeat, 1992

Since its conception in 2008, New York's Light Industry has lit up the arts scene of Brooklyn with their weekly programmes of film and electronic arts. Showing programmes that range from documentary film, early video art and experimental classics, often with accompanying lectures or introductions, the venue has become a source of inspiration for its curatorial rigour, clarity in vision and slick delivery.

Ed Halter and Thomas Beard, the co-founders and co-directors of the space, spoke to Julian Ross about their curating practice, their recent work for the Whitney Biennial and a selection of Luther Price's films[1] which they'd brought to the ICA for the 1st LUX/ICA Biennial of Moving Images in May 2012.

Julian Ross: The programme you've presented is a collaboration between the two of you and Luther Price. Can you explain how this collaboration worked? How much input did the filmmaker have on the ordering and decision-making for the programme?

Ed Halter: Luther likes to go through the line-up with the curator – at least that's how he's always worked with us and that's how we worked together for the Whitney Biennial programme. For the LUX/ICA Biennial of Moving Images, we had suggested a selection and an order and he suggested a slightly different order and some different films. He really thinks about the shows as a kind of event and so he's very invested in what order the films go in, what pieces follow other pieces, how it begins and how it ends – these are all things he's considering with the curator when he does a show like this.

JR: The programme is diverse although the films resonate with each other – not one film was alike.

Thomas Beard: Oh, definitely. I think what we attempted to do within the space of one programme was to try and map out the different kinds of working processes and almost genres of films that Luther has made within his larger body of work. You have the Ribbon films represented where he's sandwiching regular 8mm film between clear 16mm leader; you have the URF films in which he's taking 16mm editing slug – originally a 35mm print that had then been sliced down the middle – and then re-editing it and running it through the projector; as well as the Garden films where the film material was interred in his garden to gather mould and rot and then re-fashioned and re-edited, and so on.

EH: We showed one film [Singing Biscotts (2007)] from the Biscotts series which is made from multiple copies of the same documentary. By having multiple copies he is able to do a kind of editing where he repeats images and sections from the film to give this feeling of repetition in the work – but an imperfect kind of repetition, because each film is slightly different, fading differently or with different scratches. Because he edits by hand, rather than editing digitally, it is imprecise. It's not a perfect repetition. What we wanted to do was give an impression of the range of styles and vocabularies he's developing.

JR: I felt that chronology of the programme was particularly considered, especially to end with Shelly Winters (2010), which seemed like a relaxation from the intensities for the eyes but the assault on the mind continued.[2] Was Shelly Winters always the end piece?

EH: We did this at the Whitney and we thought it worked really well. In some ways it's hard to follow that film, it's such a powerful film emotionally, and it's very difficult to show something else after it. That's one of the reasons we wanted to end with it.

TB: I agree with that – it's hard to think what would come after that film. What's sort of unusual is that, even though it's an extraordinary film and definitely one to close with, when the lights come on, it is always followed with some awkward clapping. People are accustomed to clapping at the end of the show but applause is not what the film is designed to elicit.

EH: I think it's an interesting film because he makes such a strong formal choice not to include an image. Luther said that when he originally got that footage it was clear and he thought he would paint over it, but when he listened to the film, he felt he couldn't add anything more to it. The negative choice of not needing to add any more to the image because the film itself is so powerful is a really interesting choice.

TB: Of course, Shelly Winters is an imageless film in one sense but, in another, it's not, because you have all the scratches and dust that have been accumulating over the life of the work. It also has different kinds of "white". There's an interplay between the leader dividing the different sections and the original materials that he's found. It is and isn't imageless.

EH: There's also the mental image that is being evoked. The stories that he chose to include involved memories of horrible acts and we're all left to imagine them as images.

JR: The limited possibilities of screening his work, with each event being different due to the decision of projecting original prints, seemed to be in tune with Light Industry's ethos of celebrating film as an event, something I read in an interview with Ed for The Brooklyn Rail.[3] What drew you to Luther Price's work? Was it the one-time only framework?

TB: I guess yes and no. What originally drew us to Luther's work was really the work itself. We've both known Luther for years and we've been following his work for some time now. But I think, that said, we definitely see an appeal in thinking about cinema as an event. It seems an especially timely way of thinking about cinema and its "live-ness".

EH: I was just thinking about this when I went to see a Hollywood movie a couple of nights ago. What's interesting about cinema in general now, whether it is experimental cinema or Hollywood, is that going to the cinema has stopped being a normal event for people. It's not as normal as turning on your computer or the television, whereas at one point in culture it was. Every time we go to the cinema now it's somehow a special event. It has become out of the ordinary in a way that it never was… or more deliberate. You can see that even in the commercial cinema there is this move towards making cinema-going more of an event. They're bringing in all these special live events in the cinema where they'd telecast a live comedy or music show. It's happening in the US and I'm sure it's happening elsewhere. Even something as simple as "Mothers and Babies Matinees", which are happening everywhere. We're kind of reverting back to the William Castle-style "get them to the seats" business because we don't go to the cinema as a normal activity anymore. You might think about the way in which Hollywood has become so much more obsessed with the opening weekend as an event. I think that what is happening on a mass scale is happening on the scale of artist's cinema as well.

TB: I agree with that but, for our purposes, the cinema as an event is also very wrapped up in a way of attending to a work, which seems in distinction with the way film and video is frequently exhibited in a gallery context where you have a bank of monitors, things on a loop – images not necessarily designed as loops to begin with – and the pattern is one where you'd browse and wander through black boxes or idle at the monitor with headphones for a couple of minutes. What we're interested in is creating an environment where you can really attend to a work with a great deal of focus and as part of a collective experience, following that with some sort of serious consideration or reflection. The kind of format of the events allows for this.

EH: Thomas and I were discussing that what we liked about the LUX/ICA Biennial of Moving Images was that, in essence, if you want to get down to the structure of it, the Biennial was like a film festival. It's screenings in cinemas, back-to-back, and then special live-events in the theatre space. But by not calling it a festival it allows people to come in without all the baggage of a film festival – like with indie shorts and things like that. It gets away from the idea of the film festival, but still retaining the structure, showing them in a theatrical setting and allowing the audience to view them collectively rather than slapping them on a monitor or on a loop in a gallery, where people are more likely to walk past them than engage with the work.

JR: Luther Price's Super 8 performances seem to draw the attention back to the cinema as an event as well. Can you explain what sort of performances he did with his Super 8 films?

EH: In some cases he did performances for the film; in other words, he performed for the camera and used it as a means to record performances. In other cases, it's different. Once at an event-space in New York called Participant, Inc.[4], he did a one-night installation and performances of all these works, where he brought in slides, Super 8 films and video. He also had everyone dress in these medical outfits – he had a huge number of objects, these medical implements and samples. He overwhelmed the gallery but it was only up for one night. So, rather than an installation that would just be sitting there as a set of objects, it was an event. There were live elements to it where he and his collaborators were walking around altering things all night. For me that was the most complicated event of his I've seen that involved film.

whitney-biennial-2012.jpgWhitney Biennale, 2012

JR: I was watching the short video-interview with Luther Price on the Whitney's website where he was talking about the Garden series and how some of the works had decomposed so much that they had become un-projectable.[5] Has he ever considered exhibiting these as objects or would that be something against his practice?

EH: He's not against it as a practice but he hasn't done it yet. He gave me one of them, which was just in a plastic bag. I don't quite know what to do with it… maybe I should put it in a case.

TB: He began working as a sculptor. This is something that is not widely known or discussed, but Eva Hesse is as great an influence to him as is a Super 8 filmmaker like Saul Levine. He says that Eva Hesse is one of his favourite sculptors and I think it kind of clicks when you think about it, because of his interest in materials that have their own lives and change over time, materials that may be even damaging to the health of the world, or even the artist. I wouldn't be surprised if he starts exhibiting his un-projectable films as sculptures.

JR: In the 16mm films at least, Luther Price works with found footage. Where does he source these prints? Is he looking out for certain objects, themes or movements?

EH: I'd love to know that myself. I know Luther really well, and we've talked about a lot of things, but whenever I've asked him where he gets his footage from, he never quite tells me. He claims that there's this store that he goes to in the area around Boston, where he lives, that has had a lot of footage. Maybe that's true, but I don't really know where he gets it to be honest.

TB: I'm not sure if he's looking for something in particular… his relationship to the content of the film is complicated and often quite ambiguous. In the case of Singing Biscotts, he's drawn from a documentary about a nursing home but it's clearly not about a nursing home in any way. What he's trying to do is clearly mirror this visual loop they have with the camera work in one particular moment of the film and, in turn, mirror that with imperfect audio loops. What he's found is definitely related to the content but not necessarily in an obvious way. On the other hand, the content of Shelly Winters is also crucial to the work but functions in a completely different capacity.

EH: In the case of the Biscotts series he never planned to find multiple copies of the same film but he saw possibilities in that he had multiple copies. I think it's very different from working with stock footage and seeking out images, like Guthrie Lonergan does with Artist Looking at Camera (2006), where he sought out stock footage where artists turn and look at the camera. This approach is very different from something like Luther's where there's an aspect of arriving at a work and then figuring out what one can do with it.

JR: Thomas – during the post-screening Q&A you talked about the balance between precision and the aleatory randomness Luther Price shows in is work. When so much is up to chance, especially with films from the Garden series, how does he maintain a sense of control?

TB: I think he definitely maintains control at the level of editing… the ways in which the elements work for, or against, each other. With films that he's made in his garden, the results certainly are a matter of chance but the way he organises the material and how he structures it in time is a rigorous procedure.

EH: Even when I was at the Whitney with him figuring out the whole show, we were testing all the films together and there was one film we saw – I can't remember which film it was – and he said, "You know what… on second thought, I don't like how this is working," and he took the print from the booth of the Whiney, put it on rewind, found that section, cut it out, re-edited it, and said, "OK, now it's done." Like a sculptor might want to remove a little piece before an exhibition, it was a small piece of footage that he cut out, maybe a split second. On the other hand, he might find something that comes out of the garden and there's a whole section that works as it is. I think looking at Dustry Ricket (2007), most of it is an unedited chunk with the exception of the end in which there are several bits where he has inserted different images. So in some cases it's not so visible, in others, it's very visible because he wants the piece to be about the editing and he makes it very obvious.

JR: The story about editing the film right before the screening reminds me of Ed's comments for the LUX/ICA Live Journal interview, where you mentioned that he sometimes has the films projected for the first time with you.[6] How aware of these temporal rhythms and flows is he when he's editing as he hasn't seen them projected?

EH: Actually, that was an unusual circumstance for him and it's not the way he prefers to work. But the thing with Luther is that he never, in his own life, lets any kind of circumstance keep him from working. Another filmmaker might say, "I don't have a projector, I can't work." But Luther found a way to work without a projector by working on the level of the reel and the whole strip. That said, when he did see the films projected, some of them he wanted to re-edit, some of them he said didn't really work. I feel he never really thought the film would ever be complete until he saw them projected and he could make those decisions. It's actually remarkable how much he was able to do without projecting. He first saw Inkblot #44: Aqua Woman (2009-11) with me and although I think he made some very small edits to it, the film was shown pretty much as he first saw it. When you're dealing with physical film there's a visual index of the time, frame-by-frame, and if you know film well you can internally understand its rendition of time.

whitney-biennial-2012-2.jpgWhitney Biennale, 2012

JR: In Luther Prices' work, there seems to be a lot of attention towards the material of film as well as the apparatus of the projection through its presentation. On the other hand, within the recent debates about the twilight of film, his work seems to be quite separate from the nostalgia that surrounds this discourse – his treatment of film is far from precious. I was wondering how does Luther's work engage with the discourse around film material and preservation?

TB: I definitely agree, even though his films are, in a way, objects, they're certainly not precious. In fact, they might be the opposite of precious. He allows these works to be destroyed with every presentation.

EH: There's always a threat that something could happen to the films and he's accepting that threat by letting them go out as originals. That doesn't mean he doesn't want us to take absolute care when we project them.

TB: Of course, but if there's a scratch on Elizabeth Taylor's face… there's a scratch on Elizabeth Taylor's face. The work isn't somehow destroyed. He sees these works as ephemeral forms.

EH: What's more important is that this attitude towards the film material itself and its significance to the work… it's a meaningful part of the work, as his work is so much about the body and about how we live and die. It's about the danger for bodies but how they can also be healed and re-edited… re-made. He finds a way to make the contemporary situation of celluloid say something, dealing with the condition of film right now and making it meaningful… that's what's so intensely contemporary about his work. He makes the condition of film a part of his practice and makes it say something that could only be said in the current moment. The Mongrel Sister (2007), in some ways, would be a lesser film if the film had not faded to red, been beaten up. The redness of the film and the damage it has experienced is part of its emotional character.

JR: Screening the originals perhaps implies that there's even more responsibility for the curators that might go beyond usual film programming, something similar to handling paintings for an exhibition.

EH: In the world of film, there are certain ways you ship films around and Luther had always shipped films using normal mail or FedEx. But when we worked with the Whitney, because everything is treated as an artwork in a museum context, it had to be subjected to all the conducts, rituals and paperwork of shipping a painting or a sculpture. Although the works do deserve the attention, it was a little culture shock for some of the filmmakers and us because it's not usually how we work. The ways in which we deal with film seem to be about dealing with objects that are already copies. The distributor does not send out the original of the film. And Luther, he works in the film world, so he's just used to shipping things off through the mail, which is kind of astonishing if you think about it… but it's part of the risk he's willing to take. One of the reasons that Luther doesn't show as much as he might is that he doesn't go out of his way to seek out screenings. He works with curators and film programmers he knows. He maybe doesn't show in Europe as much because he doesn't go out of his way to do so. He doesn't submit to film festivals.

JR: At the Whitney Biennial, how did you envision your programmes to fit into the rest of the events there? The culture shock you mentioned is interesting in this context. How was your experience integrating film into the environment of the Whitney?

TB: I think film has an interesting place in the exhibition for a few reasons. Jay Sanders, Elisabeth Sassman, Ed and I definitely felt from the beginning that we wanted to take film and performance, which have long been a part of the Whitney Biennial – since its beginning in 1973 – but were often accorded a peripheral status in the exhibition, and really bring these margins to the centre. We tried to accomplish this by having weekly schedules where you'd have a dedicated cinema space, where one week Luther Price's work screened at scheduled times, while a huge portion of the fourth floor was dedicated entirely to performance. We had weeks dedicated to specific artists, which created a situation where someone could structure their whole experience of the exhibition around going to see a specific artist's performances and go back with a follow-up schedule in mind. It seemed important to us to foreground a lot of different kinds of work – particularly kinds of work that aren't necessarily native to the art world. And this seemed significant to us at a time when visual artists are increasingly working with film and video, and are doing so in a manner that draws upon the codes, conditions and visual vocabulary of narrative cinema or documentary film. It made sense to think of these things alongside current states of documentary and narrative film practices, even though they weren't coming from Chelsea or the Lower East Side.

JR: Your programme includes narrative features as well as experimental shorts that we've often seen in programmes presented in a museum or gallery context. At the LUX/ICA Biennial of Moving Images there was a panel discussion around long-form artists' filmmaking but no works were presented as part of any programme.

EH: It was a very conscious choice and it worked on a couple of levels. At one level, it was a nod to the history of the Whitney as the Whitney was actually a venue where many of the independent feature filmmaking started in the 1970s and 1980s – the Whitney actually did theatrical runs. For example, when Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep (1977) was new it had its first theatrical run at the Whitney and many feature films in the past were shown there and as part of Biennials. Over time, maybe because other venues were found for such activities, this practice fell off. A few Biennials included a feature film here and there but it was no longer a substantial part of the programme. We wanted to embrace the history of showing feature work at the Whitney and bring it back into this Biennial. One of the reasons we thought it was particularly of this moment to do so was that independent feature filmmaking has – especially the more non-commercial ends of it – really begun to be marginalised again. Even Kelly Reichardt, whose films we included, or Matthew Porterfield's Putty Hill (2010), these films are critically acclaimed – Kelly Reichardt is pretty much considered one of the most important young directors – yet these works have such difficulty getting shown in theatres. We wanted our programme to encompass the full range of cinematic possibilities in the current moment. Not simply the kind of works that the art world has already become familiar with and started to incorporate in exhibitions, but things that haven't yet been included. Generally, you don't go to art spaces and see feature length documentaries made by a journalist like Laura Poitras, or a narrative film like Putty Hill or Meek's Cutoff (2010). There are rich conversations to be had about the relationship between what these feature length films are doing and what's happening in visual art. But these connections are also rarely made, with the exception of a place like MoMA that has a dedicated film programme and maybe some other museums.

TB: We wanted to create a context… a sense that you could watch a Nathaniel Dorsky film and wander out of the cinema and walk into a Kai Althoff environment. You could see a Kelly Reichardt film and go up the stairs to see Richard Maxwell's theatre troupe performing. You could look at a Frederick Wiseman film and when exiting almost immediately think about the film in relation to a series of LaToya Ruby Frazier's photographs.

EH: Although this is certainly an aspect of it, we don't simply think that our job is to show the best. It is, of course, but more than that, when we curate something, whether it is for the film programme at the Biennial or our own at Light Industry, it's thinking about the whole calendar, it is also a proposal. What does it mean to see these works together? What does it mean to see these works in the same building at the same time? All these questions about the dialogues between the works is very much what we're considering all the time.

TB: And the dialogue between the works is not simply a dialogue between film and contemporary art but, even within the film programme, there are works that would not typically be screened together. It is very unlikely that Laura Poitras and George Kuchar or Nathaniel Dorsky would be on the same bill, very rarely, but what's interesting is that comparison…

EH: New York Film Festival showed Meek's Cutoff and one of the Dorsky films the same year, however, they did so in such a way that Meek's Cutoff was part of the main competition and Nathaniel Dorsky's Pastourelle (2010) a part of the sidebar called Views from the Avant-Garde. So, right there, you've got this sectioning off of one kind of cinema from another – but what we do is we put all of them on the same footing. Nathaniel Dorsky, Kelly Reichardt, Laura Poitras, Kevin Everson and George Kuchar, in other contexts, might be sectioned off in different arenas. But we're proposing that we rather consider these all together. 


[1] Luther Price screens from original prints. His films flake and degrade upon each screening as they're run through a projector, or even before the event of projection,  as he scratches, splices, splits them apart, leaving them out in the soil of his garden to rot into mutation. The etymology of "curate" is rooted in the Latin word curare, meaning "to care", and the fact that Price entrusts his prints to Halter and Beard implies they taking on the role of custodian for the object's journeys. As the sprocket-holes rip through and each frame flash-flickers, Luther Price's image-sound abstractions require a level of endurance from its audience, testing each individual's patience. Halter and Beard's ordering of the films out of hundreds of Price's recent works, therefore, had to be delivered with precision and concern for its audience to maintain a congenial rhythm; the other route of the word, accurare, meaning "to be careful about" and "to be accurate", in that sense, would also apply to describe their practice. Søren Andreasen and Lars Bang Larsen's statement that, "…the curator is not something; the curator does something*" seems directly relevant to Halter and Beard's work as they stood at the back of the auditorium not only to oversee the event but to instigate it as they took care of projection.
*Andreasen, Soren & Lars Bang Larsen (2007), The Middleman: Beginning to Talk about Mediation, in (ed.) Paul O'Neill, Curating Subjects, London: Open Editions, p. 27
[2] In Luther Price's Shelly Winters the visual palpitations arrive at a halt as we are shown a white image with only dust particles on the print that swirl, together with our minds, around the frame of the screen. The audio, however, continues, with a chorus of female voiceovers describing details of physical abuse. Torn between relief for hearing the recognisable sounds of a human voice and deep sorrow for the content of their conversations, the audience is asked to critically evaluate what they have just experienced.

Recommended reading: LUX/ICA Biennial of Moving Images Live Journal. []

Julian Ross is a PhD candidate at the Centre for World Cinemas, University of Leeds, researching Japanese experimental and independent cinema of the 1960s-1970s as part of the Mixed Cinema Network. He is a commissioning editor for Vertigo and a film programmer based in London.