FEELINGS – Curated by Rachael Rakes & Leo Goldsmith
Based out of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Video Data Bank is a mostly academic repository of film and video art, housing a veritable treasure trove of cinematic content. Whilst its library is vast, access to films within it is nigh on impossible unless you happen to be large educational institution or screening space. This speaks a lot to the relative exclusivity of video art consumption, something particularly pronounced if you’re not based in America (like us).
Thankfully, the VDB do stream a select group of films for free online as part of a curated program, VDB TV. It was launched in May this year but only offered a carefully curated program in October; under the banner of ‘FEELINGS’, the two film editors of The Brooklyn Rail – Leo Goldsmith and Rachael Rakes – selected eleven short works, ranging from the computer animated Spiral PTL (1980) to Nicolas Provost’s gorgeous re-purposed footage work Moving Stories (2011).
To highlight this collection and the rare window into the VDB collection that it provides, a group of contributors here at 4:3 have conducted a roundtable discussion about the films curated.
Conor Bateman: So, that was a pretty eclectic collection of shorts. That’s too easy to say, but given the title is “FEELINGS”, it was going to be a fairly broad net anyway. Out of the eleven films, there were definitely a handful that have really stuck with me and have made me seek out some of each filmmaker’s other work. I guess we’ll start with general impressions – what did you think of the collection as a whole?
Jake Moody: The eclecticism of this series of shorts was really refreshing for me – I think it’s fair to say that your average screening series is organised under a much more straightforward central theme than this one – by nation, director, and so on. Finding some real duds is probably an inevitable consequence of this looser approach, but on the whole I thought that most of the works were effective selections when viewed through a purely emotive prism. It’s all too rare that we’re encouraged to not only sit back and feel feelings, but also encouraged to think about them too.
Ali Schnabel: It really was quite an evocative collection. As Jake said, it’s not often that we are so actively encouraged to reflect and engage in our emotions as we experience art; it’s generally seen as a byproduct of certain attitudes or experiences that are evoked by pieces that, in turn, evoke those feelings. Certainly, there were some pieces in this collection that didn’t immediately evoke a broad palette of emotion, but I always reflected on what I was feeling—even if it was something less complex like boredom—and it’s not often that you’re forced to engage in this kind of introspection through art. As a whole, I think the curators did well to facilitate this experience and tap into some real emotion.
Jeremy Elphick: Yeah, I thought this was a fairly coherent selection. Where even if I wasn’t into all of the works included, I’d concede that they all fit fairly well within the theme. This was my first experience with VDB, and I really like how it operates; it’s easy to navigate, the playlist ran pretty seamlessly and I think it’s got a huge amount of potential; especially considering the state of watching video art online at the moment. It shows it’s possible, and the idea of grouping a bunch of shorts together like this on a thematic level works really well – it’s also a really good way for people who haven’t seen many things on the experimental side of things to quickly get an idea of what they like and dislike, with such a wide array of styles and approaches on display in this selection. I felt like C.L.U.E. really set a good tone for opening the collection. There was a certain ambiguity in the way in which it provoked an emotional response, as to whether it was self-aware, parodying or sincere; or a bit of all three. All in all, I didn’t really like this very much, I thought it was a bit tacky, and while it remained very coherent throughout, I wasn’t really that interested in the aesthetic experiment it was moving through. But it definitely established a good indicator as to what the rest of the series was going to center itself around – and beyond this, its placement at the start allowed a bit of perspective to be developed. That is, it was far from the best, but not the worst film in the collection either. I think that’s a good way to kick things off with a selection that adds up to almost 2 hours.
Conor: Yeah I do think C.L.U.E. was a pretty solid opener and what is compelling about it is this merger of form, with A.L. Steiner collaborating with choreographers Robbinschilds. I think it also plumbed an interesting visual humour through the dancers moving quickly back and forth across different locations, particularly when they were dancing around an urban cityscape – jumping up and down with takeaway coffees next to a lake was maybe the highlight for me.
Ali: I agree that there was a certain charming humour to C.L.U.E and a nicely constructed aesthetic to the piece, but I’d have to side with Jeremy here – a good starter, but kind of bland (at least in an emotional sense, when compared to the rest of the films).
Jake: I have to concur with most of you on this one, although I maybe enjoyed it on a superficial level a bit more than most of the others. The incongruous post-grunge soundtrack was a great counterpoint to the sense of feminine juvenility on display, and while I didn’t necessarily feel the edge of humour some of you did, the meticulous thematic use of colour, and the finale-of-sorts involving a warped tree and a nice visual payoff made C.L.U.E. an accessible opener. On the other hand, Ben Coonley’s Every Pony Plays the Fool is a good example of the inaccessibility inherent in this kind of art – but also one of its ability to approach territory the mainstream cannot. The laconic voiceover, stupid prop pony, and inane content are all immediately off-putting, but given the linguistic ideas at play here, there’s no way that its silliness isn’t intentional. This kind of uneasy co-existence between, let’s say “Adult Swim” humour, and the high culture Dadaism of the word game it depicts, is the key to Every Pony’s project – I have to say, though, that I felt that it was somehow incomplete, if somewhat interesting and a fun diversion.
Conor: This was kinda messy and one-note, but I laughed loudly at “it’s hard to argue with the Yankees… tyranny”.
Ivan Čerečina: I think Jake is pretty spot on here in terms of his description of the piece’s tone, which does seem to be halfway between the highbrow linguistic games and formal experiments that we associate with modernist art and more popular forms (the intertitles straight out of Westerns, puppeteering, TV news reports). There is a sense that this is a fairly “light”, a kind of knowing diversion, but there are good ideas in it that come through in the director’s drole delivery. While flicking through a daily newspaper, our downbeat newsreader asks whether we can change the sad state of affairs by keeping the articles’ structure but replacing words within it. The replacement of keywords (provided by a toy pony, whose suggestions are predictably all horse-related) creates an absurd rewriting of the pieces, something like the Situationist’s détournement but with less ambition. There’s an interesting interplay though created by the mismatched sound and image – a similar rerouting of the piece’s meaning within the structure of images.
Ali: I kind of felt like this wasn’t really saying anything about the triviality of media that hasn’t been said before, but I have to agree with Conor in that there’s some humour here. Dani Leventhal’s Platonic was probably the most thought-provoking piece in the collection for me. At twenty minutes long, Platonic explores a broad range of non-romantic relationships: people engaging with others, animals, objects, nature and physical spaces. In this collection of footage, even just the way that a person walks down a hallway or sits around a campfire can reveal a lot about their relationship to that space and how they feel about their role within it – whether that is commanding, relaxed or uncertain. Not without its flaws, Platonic does fall down sometimes in footage that features dialogue, which often seems contrived (as in the case of two friends sitting around a campsite, talking about centaurs). Thankfully, this represents a minority of the footage, which otherwise largely feels organic, well arranged and compelling, encouraging a connection to and reflection on the rich and wide-ranging footage.
Jake: I might be guilty of playing devil’s advocate for the sake of it here – although I basically agree with Ali from the perspective of Platonic’s ability to work through the inner nature of the relationships it depicts, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much. This was less to do with anything in the film text and more that it felt somewhat disruptive in the collection. As a piece of far greater duration (20 minutes) than any of the others, the kind of short film Leventhal creates is suited better to a different format; that focus on reflection, and some semblance of narrative cohesion, seem at odds with the emphasis on purest id which most of the other films focus on. In short, this one left me thinking rather than feeling, usually a positive – but in my opinion not here.
Ivan: What’s interesting though is that there are, on reflection, two opposing elements at work that structure this wide range of footage in Platonic: reflection (the past) and action (the present). Almost all of the dialogue here features one person recollecting a (mostly traumatic) memory from their past, or a story that they’d heard, relating it to someone else (the Polish woman’s escape from a dealer, a car accident). I think Leventhal mirrors this relating of events through the conduit of memory in the way she repeatedly shoots a screen that is playing some kind of footage, or pans across photographs – it creates this level of refraction that mimics what occurs when we tell a story from our past. On the flip side is this purely present tense action: families enjoying time with one another, being outside in nature or in an amusement park. In a way she seems to be sketching two different kinds of relations – past and present – or maybe just showing them in co-existence.
Conor: I’m with Ali here, I think Platonic is really impressive and the organic pacing of it, as well as the two discursive recollected stories amongst it (I liked the centaur story, by the way), made it a really relaxing watch.
Jeremy: I think Platonic falls at a point in the collection where it really stands out and I think that’s largely due to the way it’s composed, the variety of what’s included in it and the aforementioned pacing of all of it. I didn’t like it as much as Ali, but I do think it comes together quite well in the end and I did like it quite a bit.
Ivan: Running at just 3-and-a-half minutes, Kevin Jerome Everson’s Second and Lee is striking for the minimum of means it employs. It is constituted of (presumably) found footage arrests of mostly African-American men with a soundtrack consisting just of a voice over of a man talking about a brush with the law after borrowing a car and driving out to Baltimore. Footage is black and white, slowed down, with a couple of shots repeating early. The opening 90 seconds, consisting of men in handcuffs being taken through corridors by police has a mesmerizing quality. Shots resemble one another, the movement from one side of a corridor to another echoing the geometry of the one preceding it. There is also this strange sensation created by having two evocative, representative tracks. The first: voice (and text), a man speaking fairly calmly, recollecting an event passed. The second: images, cut, slowed – a less immediate connection to similar events. The two may not meet; two separate inputs of feeling?
Jake: Which is ironic, of course, considering that the film’s title refers to a crossroads – what better place to meet could there be? I found this piece powerful, too, and I think the heart of it is that incommunicable sense of disconnectedness. The voiceover and accompanying images, just like the men featured therein (are there two? who can say?), and the binary racial identities it hints toward, seem to pass like ships in the night. Does this explain the fireworks when they do make contact?
Jeremy: I’d seen a few pieces from Kevin Jerome Everson before this, and Second and Lee followed a trend of being cutting, socially-minded, and oft-political pieces I’d seen in some of his other works. This is, as Jake said, quite a concise and short work; but in my opinion, it’s one of the stronger and harder-hitting picks in the collection. Everson’s experimentation with the voiceover against this kind of footage is a simple, but effective technique. I thought this was a strong piece.
Conor: I was completely new to Kevin Jerome Everson but Second and Lee certainly is striking, though disappointing in its brevity. I’ll basically echo what Jeremy has said, the voiceover worked really well here and the use of selected archival footage was stirring and still prescient. As an addendum, I’m very keen to check out Everson’s latest film, Park Lanes, an eight-hour film meant to replicate a work day in a factory.
Ali: The next film up was John Smith’s Dad’s Stick. This was, for me, a genuinely lovely piece that really evoked feelings of comfort. Exploring the relationship between an artist and their medium by examining some of the tools his father painted with after his death, Smith creates a thought-provoking piece on how art plays a role in shaping our identity. On a more emotional plane, it explores the way in which we recoup after the death of a loved one – the inevitable going through of the possessions, reflecting on their quirks and reliving memories together. The way that Smith assembles these memories by narrating on how his dad used to sing made up songs as he painted, or his stubborn refusal to relinquish an ancient teacup swallowed by paint (classic dad move), takes us to a familiar, warm place emotionally.
Jake: John Smith was the only filmmaker featured to whose work I had had any previous exposure – his 1996 Blight, a contemplative but angry piece featuring layered soundbites from residents of a soon-to-be-demolished London tenement, is a minor classic of British experimental film. In that context, I found Dad’s Stick more affecting than I perhaps otherwise would have. As Ali points out, it’s really the quiet paternal warmth permeating the film that drives it, above and beyond the layers of metaphor which accrue like the paint on the stick. For me, this was probably the most straightforward of the shorts, but no lesser for it.
Ivan: I’m with these two. Its central conceit – linking these objects with a memory of someone and the passing of time – is simple but effective, with the stick itself a neat visual counterpart that encapsulates these ideas. I thought that the addition of the male voice singing popular tunes with made up lyrics had the effect of creating that comforting, familiar feeling that you guys talked about, and I guess it also has the effect of placing this story within a certain historical context as well.
Conor: This one actually didn’t do too much for me, other than the reveal of the paint layers at its conclusion. I think to some extent I kept thinking that it lacked a compelling visual element to necessitate it being a short film moreso than a radio piece. That reaction might be because it was the first short in this collection to rely on stills rather than moving image.
Ali: I recognised way too many reality stars from the next one. Jesse McLean’s Somewhere Only We Know assembles a variety of reality TV reaction shots – lots of Survivors being booted off the island, Top Models leaving the race, etc. This montage is capped off with footage of an earthquake striking: both in a live stream of a news show, and during filming of a Big Brother type show in the States. The inclusion of the earthquake footage seems to harken to these watershed moments of emotion that come out in these shows – despite the fact that the essence of what they’re doing is highly contrived, these people still have real emotional reactions that stand out among all the scripted drama that bookends them. It’s an interesting distillation of the emotional devastation of loss that could probably be compared to an earthquake.
Conor: This short was probably my favourite of the bunch, or at least the one that made me Google the director’s name the fastest. I’m a sucker for re-purposed footage, and the use of tight close-ups on reality tv contestants as they are booted off an island/out of a house/out of a potential romance/off a fashion career trajectory is both hilarious and strangely powerful. To piggyback off what Ali is saying, I think there is this true emotional reaction often forgotten by viewers – something that we tend to forget in light of how reality television contestants are often portrayed and the very artificial nature of those programs. The earthquake shift was brilliant, though, not only to suggest that reality television isn’t immune from literal reality (see also: Charlie Brooker’s Dead Set) but then to also position our own perspectives as being part of that same partially filtered world through the handheld camera footage.
Jake: I loved this one too, although both Ali and Conor have effectively outlined exactly how I felt about it already. The inventiveness of repurposing the most intellectually banal situations possible and revealing their inner power is exactly what defines the best moments of this whole collection. More than anything else, Somewhere Only We Know is an important antidote to elitism. Big Brother, Keane songs, the often crassly ‘humanised’ environmental drama of an earthquake – these media do hold power to evoke and emote just as valid as more widely feted art forms.
Jeremy: Like everyone above, I loved this too. A validation of the extensive period of my younger life spent watching and trying to intellectualise reality TV shows. Beyond that, it really captured what I expected from a collection like FEELINGS – with the two main sections offering two unique and refreshingly imaginative approaches to using found footage. Particularly, it’s interesting because there’s a certain familiarity to the footage; it’s not old footage, and whilst it might not be a series we’re familiar with, the parallels between it and those we are give it a certain eeriness to it that I really enjoyed.
Jake: Dan Sandin’s Spiral PTL was probably the most immediately visually incongruous of the films, but then oddly enough it actually really struck me as evocative, and all the more so for appearing within this collection. Particularly as this kind of electronic ‘pattern’ film has its roots in the painstakingly created rhythmic painted and collage films of the Kiwi Len Lye as far back as the Thirties, they always for me take on a kind of timelessness that lets the best of them permeate straight to the synapses – pure visuality. Spiral PTL struck me because it retains the proto-CGI effects of these kind of films, evoking futurism and some kind of innate sensual response. It also, however, has an organic element, with sequences that look like bloody fountains, and violent undertones, with other patterns imitating iron gates or Metropolis-style mecha. It’s uncanny onslaught of kinds of experience is what earns Spiral a place under a thematic ‘feelings’ banner.
Ali: Ahh, fractals. The fodder of hallucinogenic fans everywhere. Spiral PTL had me feeling all kinds of discombobulated – like it had some kind of mainline to my pulse. I certainly ‘felt’ a lot in the tangible sense of having a bodily reaction to the film, but I’m not sure where it took me beyond that.
Jeremy: I really liked that they included a work from the 80s, but specifically one that used these CGI effects. I feel it’s indicative of the scope of the curation for this collection, which for all its faults, doesn’t ever pigeonhole what it includes. This isn’t exactly the most fascinating piece in the collection, but from a historical and nostalgic perspective it does have a lot to offer.
Conor: I got to see the Vertical Cinema program at MIFF this year, and one of the things that became apparent fairly quickly amidst the moving shapes and experimental loops, was just how often the filmmakers chosen took a seemingly simple approach in dealing with the aspect ratio. They just filled it out in a way that didn’t really push any boundaries. That is, until Makino Takashi & Telcosystems’ Deorbit, which basically explodes halfway through. That’s what I was reminded of when watching Spiral PTL, which is captivating in its shapeshifting and speed. Like Jeremy, I also think the date alone is worth praising – this wholly modern seeming computerised art made in 1980. Something that Basma Alsharif’s Turkish Delight does so well is this expansion beyond an initial frame. Not only do we have the transfixing and confusing overlay of two images, one of them at a time seems to moves backwards or sideways to present a larger view, in effect expanding both the literal and thematic focus.
Ali: I found Turkish Delight to be disorienting in a nice way – not only the confusing visual presentation, but also the intense audio (sidenote: does anybody know what was on loop? I got too into it and couldn’t figure out if I was hearing the words “it’s me” or a person with a Southern accent saying the word “fans”) have the effect of simultaneously pushing you away due to bodily stress, but also pulling you in with the constant and beguiling movement of the frame-shifting picture.
Jake: I watched this one exhausted, unwell, and late at night, which ironically turned out to be the perfect circumstances – its confronting formal style mainlined right into my brain and made Turkish Delight a pretty indelible experience. Like all great experimental art, there’s very little space for overt ‘interpretation’, but my notes contain the phrase “is it still home if it doesn’t make sense?” This puzzle was the takeaway for me, with the film’s brief runtime giving an enticing glimpse into domesticity – apparently, Ali, the loop is snippets of recipes – while actively pushing its viewer away.
Ali: I think you’re onto something, Jake – it was very puzzling but not frustratingly so, if that makes any sense. Thanks for being a huge nerd and figuring that out.
Conor: And then we come to Lesser Apes. To keep things going – Jake?
Jake: I’m going to be fair and say that I found this one…problematic. It didn’t help that I can’t stand the prevalence of purposefully lax, rough-drawn 2-D animation which we’re seeing on TV now, and so found the dryly-narrated story of Farrah and her bonobo lesbian lover Meema visually unappealing to begin with. If the main reason why I didn’t enjoy this short isn’t clear yet, then reread my previous sentence. I understand the inclusion of something like this on the grounds that it does toy with received-wisdom type ideas about revulsion, morality and the ‘wisdom of the crowd’, but ultimately I couldn’t work out whether it tried to lampoon a certain subgenre of exploitative gross-out doco, or whether it had just become one. When a character appeared on screen to give a diatribe about the nature of attitudes toward sexual perversion, and concluded glibly that “we [humans] are the lesser apes”, I think I made up my mind. This did evoke a pretty deep response in me, but not a good one.
Conor: I thought it was just a mess, really. It was painfully unfunny for large swathes, particularly when vaguely interesting absurdity seemed within its grasp. The 2-D animation is interesting to some extent, I mean you can just look at The Big Lez Show on YouTube to see some simple yet hilarious animation work in MS Paint, but here it was just so, I don’t know, useless?
Ali: Devil’s advocate here – I wonder if maybe Lesser Apes was an exercise in disgust? Like Jake pointed out, it’s hard to tell if it was trying to subtly criticise those confronting gross-out docos, but a part of me wondered if maybe it was on purpose? I certainly had the same reaction, and experienced a feeling of disgust or frustration that I wasn’t necessarily in control of. It wasn’t really well-executed enough to stand up to this argument, but I struggle to think of what other emotions this piece was trying to elicit beyond feelings of disgust or frustration. It’s not like it’s the ‘challenge-societal-opinion-regarding-zoophilia’ collection, so was that the point?
Ivan: Leslie Thornton’s Strange Space is a really fascinating work, probably my favourite of the bunch and the only one that I really felt compelled to watch twice in full. Strange Space brings together a few disparate sonic and visual elements: outer space (moon?) footage courtesy of NASA, a sonogram as well as a recording of a doctor’s diagnosis, a reading of a Rilke poem, and footage of a man in his living room drinking tea. Thornton plays with and moves these elements over the course of 4 minutes, adding, substituting, layering sound and image: something like a game of video art Jenga. The rather melancholy Rilke poem that we hear feels like the key here in understanding the relation of these constitutive elements to one another. In it, the poet speaks of how it is “strange to inhabit the earth no longer/to use no longer customs scarcely acquired”, expressing a sense of disembodiment or dislocation from the world. Yet when Thornton plays it over the NASA footage, it takes on a cosmic element, of really not being part of this earth. Against the footage of the sonogram, Rilke’s words take on another dimension, resonating with the close up dissection of the body’s insides as another kind of “dis-embodiment.”
Conor: It’s interesting you had such a strong reaction to this one, though I know you were familiar with Leslie Thornton’s work already. I found it fairly compelling on a visual level, the gridlines and shifting focal screen, but aurally it didn’t really land. Using the sonogram audio overlaid with footage of space and close-ups of people felt a little too on-the-nose, and the Riike poem did some work in dialing that back, though only temporarily. I think as well, that for a work ostensibly looking at space and inhabiting an area, it was easily outdone by some of the other works on show here.
Jake: This is another one which, for me, should be recognised as an astute addition to the tone and emphasis of the collection overall just as much as on its own merits. Cramming all of the textual content that Ivan mentions into four minutes is an achievement in itself. The poem, and simultaneous accompanying senses of expansiveness (space travel) and banality (tea-drinking), seem to be the engine driving the ‘strange space’ of reactive emotion in which we find ourselves. Maybe trite, but is Thornton playing with something about the discord between the totality of human experience and its cosmic (exactly the right word, Ivan) meaninglessness? Whatever’s going on, I definitely found it one of the stronger pieces too.
Conor: Nicolas Provost was the only filmmaker on this list whose work I was familiar with – I wrote about his fantastic short Papillon d’amour in March – and Moving Stories was somewhat in line with the re-purposed footage approach taken in his earlier work. It’s different in that the shots he uses, seemingly stock airline commercial footage, are utterly gorgeous. He’s not manipulating the images themselves so much as the context surrounding them. I loved the way in which the planes would leave the frame and the shot would hang there momentarily, disarming in its subtle shift of focus. There was also this strong sense of intrigue amidst the short, probably because of these shots as well as the re-purposed dialogue at the start.
Ali: This was such a wonderful piece to finish the collection with. Like Conor said, it’s extremely visually pleasing, but Provost’s additions really make it: the footage is combined with audio snippets from David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, romantic conversations between Jeffrey and Sandy as they start exploring their chemistry. For anyone who has seen it and knows how things turn out for the two in the film can see how this is reflected in the footage: Moving Stories is described as having a ‘perpetual forward momentum’ and that’s certainly true of the footage: in every shot, we are chasing the plane, or capturing it as it slips in and out of the frame. The combination of this footage and the audio creates a pleasantly packaged sensation of hopefulness or optimism that rounds the collection up really nicely. Who would have thought that the sound of an airplane in flight could actually be rendered calming?
Conor: Ah, Blue Velvet! Of course. I didn’t recognise it and assumed it was from a television show. Now that I re-watch it I’m kicking myself it wasn’t plainly obvious.
Jake: I’m usually pretty lukewarm on these kinds of collage shorts, but this one, much like Somewhere Only We Know, won me over by approaching the process of repurposing in a manner which felt totally fresh. I mean, how many ‘subversive’ shorts are out there which mash together old noir romance scenes, versus the number which use what appears to be airline promo stock footage? Plus, as a set closer, the transcendent, airborne feel of Moving Stories couldn’t be a better complement to C.L.U.E. and its daggy grunginess at the start.
C.L.U.E. (color location ultimate experience), Part 1 (dir. Robbinschilds and A.L. Steiner, 2007)
Every Pony Plays the Fool (dir. Ben Coonley, 2003)
Platonic (dir. DaniLeventhal, 2013)
Second and Lee (dir. Kevin Jerome Everson, 2008)
Dad’s Stick (dir. John Smith, 2010)
Somewhere Only We Know (dir. Jesse McLean, 2009)
Spiral PTL (dir. Dan Sandin, 1980)
Turkish Delight (dir. Basma Alsharif, 2010)
Lesser Apes (dir. Emily Vey Duke, Cooper Battersby, 2011)
Strange Space (dir. Leslie Thornton, 1994)
Moving Stories (dir. Nicolas Provost, 2011)