Views of the Same Light: On nostalgia, collective making & how it all bends.
Today in my apartment, there’s no hot water. Four pots on the stove boil away for a bath. I’m used to it now after two weeks of enduring my building’s broken water heater. I’m so used to it that when I turn on the tap for the bath and it’s frigid and cold, I don’t panic, I just text my landlord, too tired even to type in angry all caps. It’s been a few months since my building was bought. Since they’ve started tearing out the hundred-year old wiring and jackhammering away at the foundation. The new management company’s going to turn it into condo-style apartments, each with a new washer and dryer. They expect to rent each of the units for over three times my current rent. But right now, every time they install a new pipe, they break an old one. Every time they try to fix the heater, the electricity fails. We receive a notice that this capital construction will last twelve months. We should take items off our shelves and walls because they might start to vibrate. We do not get a rent reduction.
Today in my apartment, there is a cacophony of noise coming through the earmuffs I’m wearing over my headphones, a comical attempt to drown it all out. In a week, I’ll be moving. I’m getting out because I can, I’m lucky enough to afford to. But with the way rent’s climbing in the East Bay, there are few in my building like myself, who can leave. Instead, they’re fighting to stay. It is hard.
A couple of months ago, I’m at the BAMPFA, watching a feature film by Mike Kuchar. It’s a campy classic, entitled Sins of the Fleshapoids. Hailed by John Waters as one of the greatest underground films ever made, it’s a sci-fi flick depicting a world wherein humans live a life of leisure, having succumbed to the invention of robotic assistants called “fleshapoids” who satisfy their every need. Despite its low-budget, porny, B-movie aesthetic, Sins of the Fleshapoids is far from being plot-driven. Rather, it’s excessive, the movement shot at languidly close, off-kilter angles, the special effects tinny from in-camera editing. The characters in the movie are all played by friends and acquaintances of Kuchar and his late brother George, a filmmaker as well. They speak in word bubbles to a melodramatic soundtrack, and in lieu of a fancy action scene at the film’s climax, we are graced with a well-timed cameo from a toy robot. It’s littered with glittery DIY costumes and homemade murals that paint the door to nowhere, and I love the lurching drugged-out-ness of it. The performers enthralled with the familiarity of each other; the film suffused with garish, plasticky gestures.
At the screening, director Mike Kuchar is a delight, interrupting the cinematic silence to tell the audience interesting trivia about how this movie was made. Later, during the Q and A, a student asks Kuchar about his process — whether he storyboards his films, or how he sequences shots. Kuchar laughs and cheerily tells him he’s overthinking it. You just kind of have to go with the flow of whatever is in the room, he says. As he said in a 2016 interview with Open Space, “All you’ve got to do is start talking. Either that or just pick up a camera and start aiming it — and what you’re aiming at also has influence on how you’re using them or how the camera is depicting them. And it brings out feelings that you have for your subject, putting them into some kind of new form that’s emotional, that has its own kind of psychological drive.”
Kuchar also tells the audience about the film parties that he and his brother used to throw, how they’d get a bunch of people and junk and cheap fabric together and “that would be it!” Basically, he says, if you want to make a film, you just have to throw a party.
Onscreen, I watch the Kuchars’ high school friend and leading lady Donna Kerness admire herself in a white floral mirror, her nipples covered with hilariously large cardboard pasties. They’re painted yellow to look like sunflowers; she’s rosy in the tinted light. I watch George Kuchar give a wonderfully sniveling performance as the villainous prince, plastic pearls dangling near his youthful face. Back in the audience of the BAMPFA theater, I catch a glimpse of Mike Kuchar. It’s dark. His kind, aging face is inscrutable to me. I wonder what it must feel like, watching these movies in the present moment. How it feels to have most of your oeuvre bound up in the kinship structures of the ’70s/’80s artistic underground. Your loves and losses eternally preserved in a series of recurring filmic loops, their faces turned young with celluloid luminescence, every screening a confrontation with your past. I wonder if these moments color themselves perfect — or buckle into something more painful — as they drift distant, as the people within them pass on and age. I wonder what it feels like to have experienced the deep aesthetic sociality of the moment, where art was part and parcel of everyday friendship, and this friendship was a part of living, or wanting to.
These days, you can no longer make art as a part of living. Rather, it feels more like you have to figure out how to make art and also how to live.
Light Field is an artist-run, international festival of work on celluloid that happens once a year in the Bay Area. Its 2016 program was huge, boasting over fifty films shown at three different locations, including classics by artists such as Peter Hutton and Yoko Ono, and contemporary work by artists from Japan, Mexico, and elsewhere. As far as I can tell, the festival is an extensive screening of experimental film over three days. It has no discernible funding and yet has committed to paying all its filmmakers — an organizational task that seems to suggest its curators are clinically insane. So, when Tooth, one of the collective members, asks me to join the collective, I say yes, of course, it’s an easy decision.
Being a writer, and not a filmmaker, I have not met the other collective members. And because I’m used to artistic communities self-segregating according to genre (with some scarce overlap), I am not part of the experimental film community in the Bay Area, nor do I know many local filmmakers. No surprise, at the first meeting I’m nervous. I make chocolate chip cookies. I meet two of the original collective members, Zachary Epcar and Samuel Breslin, smoking in an alley outside one of their apartments. It’s lined with unruly potted plants. The conversation is also unruly. I laugh too much and talk too loud. I make Isabelle Huppert jokes. They go down okay. I offer the cookies but Samuel is allergic to chocolate. Zachary possesses a large appetite for cookies though, so he eats them and I feel okay. Syd Staiti, who’s also a writer and filmmaker, joins the collective with me, and at the next gathering, we meet Emily Chao, a filmmaker who’s worked at BAMPFA and whom I’ve seen rushing around with a clipboard at screenings, clearly the person getting things done. Figuring out anything takes a long time because organizing anything with other people is hard. Terse emails are wont to fly about in the ether. There are a lot of spreadsheets with many colors and yet no discernible color-coding.
But sometimes, at meetings, there are noodles, or Emily makes delicious borscht, or we order pizza. There are plenty of awkward moments in these gatherings of six individuals who don’t know each other that well, but in between, we get to know each other a little. What art we like, or make, and what’s up in our dumb jobs or lives. We learn who has dogs, or who makes videos of dogs and whose job it is to post crazy videos of dogs on the internet (mine, but I think most of us enjoy this activity).
We throw a benefit punk show at The Hole so we can pay the filmmakers. Our friends and communities come through for us. We make more money than we thought possible, and in the 1 a.m. delirium of gratitude and relief, I trip over limbs, chasing Emily through the event space with an extra twenty dollars in hand, trying to pay a band. Syd in the living room, teasing Emily’s roommate about his job in Silicon Valley while he holds his head in his hands, groaning, “I know, I know…” Everyone else, outside smoking. I want a cigarette too.
Sometimes there are disagreements and we are too new to each other to articulate them truthfully, or they come out too fast and too strong. But as Tooth has previously said in an interview with East Bay Express, “we wanted this to be more of a multi-vocal, collective action. We have a lot of disparate, or even competing visions, so harmony, or the right disharmony, can be hard — it’s been an experiment.” We’re just hazarding through.
At the very least, we can all agree on a general policy of “no tote bags.” Weirdly, I think this helps.
I’m at a family dinner, picking at my food. I’m bored, but I perk up because an acquaintance is telling me about a LARP (Live Action Role Play) scenario he was engaged in a few months ago, which occurred over a long weekend. Here’s how it worked:
Day one involves everyone developing their character through group exercises. It can be as separate, or as similar to your IRL personality as you would like — the only condition is that it is not entirely yourself.
Day two, they set the scene. You’re at a party. It’s the ’70s and the music is amazing. Some people are dancing, or taking drugs, or hooking up in small groups or large ones. Everyone is the best version of who they want to be. Everything queer and free and beautiful. Is it? It seems too good to be true.
Anyway, day three, they set the scene again. You’re at a party. It’s much like the one before, but this time, it’s ten years later. After yesterday’s role play, several people have been given paper slips at random, indicating that over the ten years that have passed in this fictional universe you are all inhabiting, they have each died. They may only interact with the players as ghost characters, returned to haunt the living. It’s ten years later. You’re at a party. So many of your friends have died. You’re crying, and sharing stories and memories. You’re holding each other, and gently kissing. Loving each other through the pain.
The realization hits me. What my acquaintance is describing is a fictional recreation of the AIDS crisis in the form of a role play game with sexual gratification at its center. I try to stanch my initial reaction, which is one of unmitigated horror. “How could anyone participate in a situation eroticizing the AIDS crisis, an event almost akin to a genocide?” I ask my acquaintance. It seems as though its purpose is to find a more interesting sexual experience, entertainment, or some false or cathected emotional catharsis. “Well, part of what you say is true,” they say. “Yeah, it’s kind of icky.” But they also point out to me that the people who choose to take part in this kind of role play span a diverse demographic, and include a significant number of actual survivors of the crisis. Survivors who participate in this LARP in order to relate their experiences of the time to younger queer people, as well as to resolve their own trauma through erotic play. Many think that this is a way to make people understand how painfully banal the threat of death was in the ’80s for those who survived, how much it was part of the fabric of reality — a kind of educational activism. Many others think this kind of LARP is inexcusable — a rosy, sex-tinted version of gay existence in another time that doesn’t include, for example, the terror of having your party being raided by the cops, that doesn’t account for the true oppression suffered by so many at the time.
What I do know: imagining utopias are a necessary part of living. But it seems dangerous to do so by fetishizing a moment past. To desire so strongly to return to it that you would relive some movie-magic reenactment of its hardships for the purposes of individual pleasure.
But I guess it seems to do some good, for some. An illicit closet fantasy. I don’t know.
Something that I find endearing about Samuel and Zachary is that they have hair that is somewhat anachronistic: Zachary’s is long and big and curly, Samuel’s is short and unruly and dark. He also has a mustache. They are friends. I can tell because before the Kevin Jerome Everson screening in the BAMPFA theater, I hear them behind me discussing the unquestionably avant methodologies of Taco Bell, the fast food joint’s most recent innovation being a taco shell devised out of a piece of fried and flattened chicken. At a Light Field meeting, Zachary tells a story about an older, much-beloved, eminent Bay Area filmmaker. He and Samuel were at a screening, he can’t remember which. I can’t remember all the details of the story they told, but here’s what I think I heard. Zachary and Samuel walk out after the screening, and notice that Mr. Eminent Filmmaker is also there. One or two or all of them might or might not be a little high, it doesn’t really matter. But Zachary and Samuel are outside the theater, casually smoking a cigarette, and when Mr. Eminent Filmmaker walks out, he catches an eyeful of them. Turns, and says absently, at them and their hair: “The ’70s really weren’t that cool, you know.” He walks away. I can’t really help myself but I think this is hilarious.
The art world does not lack for shitty men, so, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it’s not surprising when Knight Landesman and other major figures are accused of sexual harassment. But I hear a rumor that a queer Bay Area filmmaker recently made a statement on Facebook about having been assaulted by one of his peers back in the ’70s. He is emboldened by the structures of accountability available now, which were not available to him back then. Inspired by the courage of those coming forward, he’s decided, years later, to make a point that this behavior is not exclusive to those who are straight. To me, it corrects the long-held illusion that there is can be no imbalance or abuse of power in queer, collaborative artistic communities.
Online, the list of predators, rapists, and assaulters in all different industries — Hollywood, fashion, the restaurant business — grows day by day.
Sometimes, watching the lusciously “transgressive” films depicting a New York and Bay Area past — from Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures to Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Richard Kern’s Sewing Circle — I wonder how much trauma remains concealed under the broad claims of flamboyant sexuality, the radiant halo of kitsch and camp, the assumed fellowship of a shared queer identity. How much trauma we presume does not exist, shoddily covered over by the mirrored pool of the “art object,” the audience’s desire to believe collectively in in the innocence of our hallowed categories — queerness, artistic collaboration, productive sociality. How much can we willfully forget in order to hallucinate the vision of the remembered past we wish to see?
At home, I’m watching The Hunt, a serialized nature documentary that’s composed only of dramatic struggle, every scene a heart-wrenching chase between predator and prey. A pack of lions is trying to tear apart a single bison, but miraculously, it gets away; there’s a split-hair moment between succumbing to a violent death and freedom. The final struggle a whirring mass of meat and fur and horn. “Did you know,” Joey tells me on Gchat, “that when Bridget watches The Hunt, she roots for the prey???” as though he thinks it is a ridiculous thing to do. I keep it to myself, but guiltily, I know that sometimes, I root for the prey, too, especially when it seems futile.
In any case, Mr. Eminent Filmmaker was right. The ’70s really weren’t that cool, you know.
I sometimes find artists and writers and poets expect you to provide some burden of proof that you are sufficiently One of Them. I find that they expect credentials or publication details to be casually dropped, or in lieu of that, a subtle mention of some current issue of the day that will indicate your familiarity with a shared communitarian or aesthetic landscape. Sometimes, this line of questioning happens because of curiosity; it feels awkward and challenging, but it can be fun. On the other hand, it sometimes feels exclusionary. I am guilty of both kinds myself. Because of this, at the Light Field meeting, I nervously volunteer to take care of the social media and PR, since it’s what I do for a living. I’m not sure if I’m qualified to curate, and I say so. Everyone looks confused. You can curate if you want, they say, I mean no pressure, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, but why not. In this meeting, there is no verbal audition, or tentative offering of condescending advice to someone who they know primarily works in a different medium. No subtle way of trying to suss out if I really do know what I’m talking about when it comes to experimental film, or Bay Area visual art, or whatever. Weirdly, there seems some implicit trust, some knowledge loosely gleaned from us all occupying the same physical space, from some intuitively gleaned commonality. I’m not used to it, and to not prove my worth to them seems a little insane, given the way I’ve been socialized, but, okay, I say, why not.
And although a Kuchar-style film party these Light Field gatherings are not (for one, there is decidedly less tinselly fabric, glitter, and/or drugs), it’s nice that the daunting task of Making a Film Festival starts to feel slightly easier. Sometimes, it kind of just feels like hanging out.
Maybe it’s a little fucked up, but it seems as though there’s something about that moment in the ’70 and ’80s that we yearn for, even if we haven’t experienced it. Something we seek in our collaborative practice, some naïve fantasy of art as a way of forming and articulating community, as a practice of shared enjoyment. This isn’t coy flirtation with the attention of institutions or galleries, nor is it necessarily linked to the lifeblood of funding. More like some ride-or-die feeling that the artists we admire from that time seemed able to keep in taut equilibrium with their survival; some drive, some ability to make art for no one but each other for no reason other than why not.
Anyway, better rent control or not, it’s true that life in the city has always been hard. It’s true that we know any desire for the past is nothing but a kind of dangerously glossy vision of a utopic “way back when” when life was “more carefree for artists,” and this place seemed to promise some kind of refuge.
But, perhaps, as Adam Phillips writes, “Our [imagined] utopias tell us more about our lived lives, and their privations, than about our wished-for lives,” and our contemporary nostalgia, in fact, tells us something about what feels increasingly impossible in the looming shadow of city developers, their capitalist city of today.
Down the block from my apartment, there’s a cluster of shipping containers that have been converted to office and retail space. Ugly and modern. Developers have been overheard outside the temporary buildings bragging about how these containers can be offered to community businesses and organizations at affordable rents so they can help gentrify the area, after which they can be easily torn down and moved to another location. In their place, expensive luxury housing will be built instead.
At the New Narrative conference, I’m on a panel for the ON Contemporary Writing essay anthology From Our Hearts to Yours: New Narrative as Contemporary Practice, a collection of essays about the impact of New Narrative — a movement of queer, Bay Area-based quasi-fictional, autobiographically-based writers — on a younger generation of practitioners and scholars. Like any conversation that requires definition of its terms, we’re stuck on what “New Narrative” really means — and how one might practice it in 2017. Is New Narrative an aesthetic? A set of formal categories? Is it related to a history of queerness, a political imperative, its individual founders and practitioners? The conversation is lively but there’s just no way to come to a conclusion.
The truth is, I don’t believe that New Narrative as a set of practices, or as a community of writers, can be divorced from its historical context — the ’70s gay rights movements, the ’80s AIDS crisis, the landscape of a very different Bay Area. As Ariel Goldberg notes in The Estrangement Principle, even if you, an empathetic young person, wear a SILENCE = DEATH t-shirt, it doesn’t mean you understand that moment — in fact, you probably never will. But perhaps what we can take from New Narrative is the way it insisted on making art that was, either directly or obliquely, a part of the activism in that political moment. An important part of that was imagining, and writing, and living something instead of the doom they faced — something they desired, something different.
Indeed, it would be silly to love New Narrative so much that we would want to reproduce it exactly, or (impossibly) try to emulate the conditions that produced it — and if we did, it would likely be some flimsy facsimile. But perhaps we can reformulate its methods, perhaps we can strive to form a relationship to our art that interacts with our current moment in the way that New Narrative authors did with theirs. Why be nostalgic to suffer the past when there is so much to face in the Bay Area of 2017, where the landscape has begun to literally burn?
There’s no way to live like artists did in the ‘70s, or ’80s — but given the reality of that history, I’m not sure anyone would want to.
This place or time isn’t perfect. But there’s something here that makes us insist on the strange possibility of things, something sharp within the reality of a hostile world. Something that makes us realize that art isn’t about who makes it, or who it’s for. That we don’t have to make it for anything but each other. It’s in the air, how we exist together and treat each other — gossipy and irreverent and tender.
In a recent essay for The Brooklyn Rail, Sophia Wang, a local dancer and artist, writes of her experience in the Bay Area: “I found friends in the noise, punk, and garage rock scenes, and going to shows and warehouses and repurposed lots was a way of intimately connecting with the area through its robust, self-organized networks of artists, musicians, and promoters. What’s distinct about an art scene can be found at its spatial and social margins, because the further you get from institutional spaces, the closer you get to what’s emergent and locally resourced.”
I’m in Buffalo, New York, at my friends Holly Melgard and Joey Yearous-Algozin’s apartment. I’ve travelled eight hours by bus to make it here, and yet all weekend, we haven’t left. Instead, we’ve stayed indoors, talking shop and making poetry and smoking on the porch. We eat ice cream sandwiches. I tell them who I want to date. They look at each other and roll their eyes.
Joey, Holly, and Chris Sylvester are part of TROLL THREAD, an online PDF publishing collective that privileges the easy access and excess of the data-laden internet. Rather than giving in to the preciousness of the printed book or art object, the name of the game here is production — free content for all, sourced from the trashy dregs of online life and cultural waste. Including work such as LIQUIDATION — a PDF collecting 300 photographs of the leftover items that fill (and were once used at) the abandoned Trump Taj Mahal Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City — TROLL THREAD’s collective goal is to operate in a way that turns institutionalized forms of publication into an elaborate conceptual joke.
Similarly, J. Gordon Faylor’s Gauss PDF operates as a rejection of typical publication conventions — to call him a publisher and it a publication would be highly reductive. Gauss PDF is a curated space in which its online platform has become the very impetus for new poetic experimentations in form and genre. One example of this is Alejandro Miguel Justino Crawford’s Diana Hamilton’s Dreams, an immersive virtual environment in which one can move around between prerecorded recollections of the poet Diana Hamilton’s dreams. Most of the pieces hosted are a rumpled mix of media — poetry, noise, found image, and film — and range from sketches and initial ideas to polished pieces. Over the years, they’ve become a collection of networked objects, holding years of aesthetic dialogue between those who’ve become involved with the project, who’ve forged long-standing relationships with each other.
In a PDF on TROLL THREAD entitled HOW TO STOP WORRYING ABT THE STATE OF PUBLISHING WHEN THE WORLD’S BURNING AND EVERYBODY’S BROKE ANYWAYS AND ALL YOU REALLY CARE ABT IS IF ANYONE IS EVEN READING YR WORK, Joey provides simple instructions for uploading a PDF book to the internet. Toward the end, he writes: “also, this is poetry, you shouldn’t be making a profit / don’t be an asshole.”
As Gauss PDF, or Light Field, or any number of collectives would suggest, a crucial part of collaborative experimentation and intimacy is a shared rejection of institutional structures — the gallery space, traditional publication, “no tote bags!” After all, as Wang writes — perhaps it’s these resulting “environments of shared risk, experimentation, and generosity that support the most provocative works.”
There are still people willing to try to make art as a part of their living. Not out of obstinacy, or as a matter of fetish, but as a matter of principle — they believe that that art isn’t just the profit-driven visual art or literary world, nor is it some isolated work of genius. Rather, it’s an ethical commitment to existing in the world in a different way, of living to make and encounter things alongside others.
Tooth is one of these artists, and Light Field is a natural progression from his film series black hole cinematheque, a DIY operation in a West Oakland warehouse that programmed international avant-garde film on a monthly basis, free and open to the public. I’ve seen some of my favorite contemporary work at black hole, from Nazlı Dinçel’s Solitary Acts series to Valie Export’s Syntagma. But living and making will always require place. And recently, in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire, black hole stopped hosting events in fear of being deemed an unsafe space by the city and being shut down; in fear that its residents would be evicted, with no alternative, affordable place to go. Of course, its residents, all working artists, were living there because the problem was that there were no affordably safe spaces for them to live in to begin with.
It’s about a year ago, and at black hole, Tooth is testing a solid light film by Anthony McCall for the Light Field festival. Combining a 16mm projector, a fog machine, and an abstract film loop, the “film” itself is a conical beam of light taking up the space. A transient and ephemeral sculpture, the beam starts out difficult to see, but flickers in and out of materiality as smoke is blown by a fan in and out of its path. A kind of waning brilliance. If this were capital-A art, there might be stiffness — a cautious appraisal of the work, a separation between audience and art object, perhaps a kind of heavily performed, almost religious respect. And if this were about what we know of McCall and his aesthetic position, or his sometime-acrimonious relationships to his peers, this hard formalism might become aloof, seem elitist and dull instead.
But tonight, all of this gives way to something else; smoke illuminating the faces that gather around the light, stretched out and slack with wonder as we trail fingers and limbs amongst and between tendrils of smoke, our flesh composing and obscuring and shifting the sculpture and its light. Someone exhales their cigarette into the stream and giggles, fans their breath so it blossoms. I get my inhaler out of my bag, but I’m not sure if the tightness in my chest is from the asthma or something else, some sublimity.
Sometimes it feels possible that art doesn’t need anything outside of it but us. But this isn’t true. Art is labor and so it wants lots of things — inseparable from the people who make it, it wants affordable housing, and food, and antagonism, and safety. It’s not afraid to fight for it. But living here is hard. It will get harder. How do we make art, and live? How do we make art, and stay? The world is different than it was in the ’70s, or even the ’80s, but the questions remain the same.
This place or time isn’t perfect. I have no desire to believe that art has any material power but to move me. However, perhaps there are small moments where we can resist reality, can collectively live and make and gather as though the better world that we desire, the one that we so long for, has somehow already arrived. And sometimes, when this happens, it can feel as though everyone who wants better has instead responded to their precarity by insisting they exist — and by existing together to give so much in return.
I turn my face into the Anthony McCall and smile. It’s blinding, but I can feel the bodies behind me. Others in the shadows, flickering.
It might be an illusion, but the light refracted between us; at moments, it can almost seem to bend.