More Than Movies
Nick Pinkerton at the extra-cinematic offerings of First Look 2015

In its fourth year, Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look has taken to calling itself a “festival” instead of, as previously, a showcase. At exactly the same time it has taken several steps to make itself look less like a film-and-film-only festival. First Look has rushed into the void left by the scaling back of New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde into the more modest Projections, and is now working along parallel lines with the amorphous, BAMCinématek-based Migrating Forms. It is also taking advantage of the particular unique qualities of the museum space with such features as the unveiling of Common Areas, a 50-foot wide wall piece comprised of sliding panels and wipe transitions created by Montreal-based visual artist Sabrina Ratté.

First Look, more than ever before, has dedicated itself to programming new media art, a mission that extends to those haiku of the 21st century, the .gif. Seven .gifs in total were commissioned by First Look, by seven different artists, and they have been on display before screenings in the Redstone Theater, on hypnotic loop. Sunken buildings, oily bubbles, floating plants by Eva Papamargariti, whose aesthetic is in the vein of trapper-keeper psychedelia, traces an ascent along a gridded gray shaftway, which passes through an aquarium-sized Atlantis cluttered with clip art architecture before finally rising into the air along with what appears to be feathery fluff and airborne seedlings, then begins the same journey anew. Lorna Mills’s Volare, oh oh is a decoupage of smaller .gifs of cars revving their engines or doing donuts in clouds of exhaust set against a black backdrop, the component .gifs deliberately crudely “cut out” as to leave a pixelized fringe around them, the whole demolition derby overseen by a fire-breathing snowman. Sculpture No. 4 by Milos Rajkovic, a.k.a. Sholim, depicts a sort-of “mask” contraption of uncertain scale, in which a visor-like strip containing empty eye sockets mounted on a spring-loaded piston pump travels up and down, aligning with a pair of spinning eyeballs at the apex of its journey. (I say “uncertain scale” because there are two cowled humanoids mounted on the device—one operating the pump, which is connected to a film projector, another perched on top, swiveling what appears to be a 16mm camera back-and-forth—and either it’s very large or they’re very small: the old Sack Lunch conundrum from Seinfeld.)

I have on good authority that there was quite a bit of lengthy discussion over the proper format in which to “premiere” a .gif before the loop solution was finally decided on—though for some, any theatrical presentation of such work is by definition improper. Writing for the Dissolve, Nathan Rabin announced that he was “a little dubious of GIFs getting the big-screen, film-festival treatment, as this could prove a terrible precedent for ring-tone-centered music festivals and literary conferences conducted solely in Emoji.” Mr. Rabin is evidently taking the piss here, for it’s unlikely that anyone so involved in “film” culture could be wholly oblivious of the fact that festivals based around the public exhibition of such online phenomena as .gifs, Internet cat videos, and ‘Tube channel found footage are now proliferating, and have been for some time.

I’m placing the scare-quotes on “film” culture because after a good 115-year run, shot-and-displayed-on-film moving image art is no longer standard, or even particularly common, in any idiom. This is not, in and of itself, a tragedy. Moving pictures predate the Lumières, and they will continue to exist post Avatar—in the .gif, perhaps, we find the re-emergence of the praxinoscope tradition (or the lenticular print, a medium in which Lorna Mills, for one, has also worked). This may seem a significant step back, but I can think offhand of several .gifs I’ve seen this year which have given me more aesthetic, emotional, and intellectual stimulation than most current Academy Award frontrunners. In the last fifteen years the Internet has fundamentally changed the texture and rhythm of daily life and, with a few notable exceptions—Olivier Assayas remains a shining example, and I write on the eve of the release of Michael Mann’s superlative Blackhat—feature narrative filmmakers have scarcely managed to integrate this fundamental change into their work at all. (More typical is the trail of technophobic misfires that leads from 1995’s The Net to 2014’s Men, Women and Children.) Supple new formats are needed to express and address aspects of the world which existing art forms are unequipped for, though partisans for different branches of moving image art are too often unwilling to acknowledge one another’s existence—given that “old media” categories like nonfiction, non-narrative, and short films largely remain ghettoized from the fiction feature, it is perhaps too much to ask for overlap between, say, the readerships of and Film Comment.

Aside from the .gifs, the most prominent instance of new media art at First Look is a “mixtape” of work created and distributed under the auspices of Undervolt & Co., an experimental video label founded in 2013 that represents, per its website, a “new generation of video artists who grew up in the age of digital revolution.” These are works produced entirely on a computer, some taking aspects of web culture (implicitly or explicitly) as their subjects, and meant to be easily consumed on a laptop—which, in fact, is where I encountered them. Indeed, I suspect that the mixtape might be a little punishing in the “hot” theatrical medium, as several of the films aspire to summon and sustain an enervative assaultive energy. Yoshihide Sodeoka’s Devils Reign (2011), which hurtles the viewer through a writhing vortex of scalloped, web-harvested imagery accompanied by throttling guitars and Beelzebub laughter, follows Jimmy Joe Roche’s Leather (2014), a field of seething liquescent abstractions through which malevolent forms can faintly be detected, laid over a field of dungeon-y sonic ambience. Am I Evil (2011) by Extreme Animals, whose “video album” The Urgency was recently screened at Migrating Forms, is rather more tongue-in-cheek, taking a crack at the bugbear of black magick as it exists in the popular imagination, a witch’s brew of public access wicca, Harry Potter sorcery scares, and the meme-generating 2010 TV spot in which smiling Tea Party Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell foreswore her early dabbling in the dark arts, all to the tune of magisterial viking metal. Another distinct subset of Undervolt work looks back to the pioneer days of computer graphics: Jennifer Juniper “J.J.” Stratford performances for the LZX video synthesizer and Fairlight CMI (Bubbling Image and Solitary Depths) are flashing folds of digital drapery and shifting transitional scrims, while Johnny Woods’s Dazzling Odyssey: The Electric Mind (2013), a wide-ranging travelogue of digital terrains, earnestly invokes a stoner science teacher’s sense of awe.

The announced mission of Undervolt & Co., who make work by their artists available at modest prices through online platforms rather than selling exclusive rights to galleries, is to develop a distribution model that is “a hybrid child of the good parts of old . . . paradigms”—none of which is particularly dependent on the communal theatrical experience. Another case of exhibiting work in the theatrical context for which it was not specifically intended comes in First Look’s program of video installations by the Israel-born, Queens-raised, Berlin-based Omer Fast. In the instance of Fast’s 2012 Continuity, created and evidently first displayed as a looped single-channel video installation, it’s actually difficult to imagine the piece functioning as something casually encountered and wandered in and out of. It tells a narrative which is linear, if not without a twisted component—the story is that of a German couple who may or may not have actually lost a son in Afghanistan, who re-enact the “homecoming” of a soldier son played by a succession of three male prostitutes—and gradually parcels out information over the course of 41 minutes. In this case, Fast’s surreal outbursts are well suited to the big screen. The transition is somewhat rockier for Fast’s Everything that Rises Must Converge, a four-channel piece which first appeared at the 2013 Frieze Art Fair in London, where each element was separately displayed in seedy adult bookshop jack-off booths. The context suits the subject matter—a day in the life of Los Angeles, most specifically a day’s work for four mid-to-low-level porn industry working stiffs (pun, sadly, intended), shooting a gang-bang scene. From morning ablutions and pube-shaving to solitary bedtime, each performer is the subject of his or her own dedicated movie, all four of these overlapping on the set. For projection, the screen is divided into quarters, each film playing simultaneously (though cacophonous dialogue overlap has been avoided.)

If anything distinguishes Fast’s how-they-make-the-sausage peek into the dirty pictures business it’s a puckish sense of humor, while in Jane Gillooly’s Suitcase of Love and Shame, also at First Look, one gets a more emotionally gripping look at the erotic zeitgeist. In the latter case, the zeitgeist we’re speaking of is that of the edge-of-the-sexual-revolution mid-1960s, and the subjects are two adult Midwesterners conducting an affair by discreetly communicating via exchanged audiotapes—tapes which Gillooly happened to acquire on eBay, and which make the basis of a documentary. Suitcase has been around the block by now, having played New York in spring of 2014 at Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real series, where I first saw it. Though I greatly admired the film at the time, I didn’t feel that the images that Gillooly had shot were always up to the level of her raw material, a matter which she has addressed with this go-around of Suitcase. On a screening of the movie last Sunday afternoon the audience was filmed by Gillooly while watching and listening to the frequently steamy exchanges—one camera was placed at the front of the room, one at the back—and an edit of the footage, titled Audience of Love and Shame, will be screened this weekend, one week later. A document of the public consumption of very private material, this may well be the keystone of the First Look slate, which discards the concept of proper exhibition format.

Photo: Continuity, courtesy Omer Fast and Filmgalerie 451