AGAINST PURE CINEMA
You are born in 1988 in New York, a city that will soon expel the last dregs of a sustainable artistic culture. It is a city that you immediately forget. You are whisked by your parents instead to another country, safe and clean; but there is no place untouched by the ills of the world, which fast-track themselves; sprout as you do.
It starts harmlessly: a love for books, a need to read, a curiosity about elemental symbolism and form. You start to write. You are bad at drawing. You are taught to admire white poets and writers because they are the paragon of art; you are told to read Asian writers because they will teach you about your history and your culture. You accept this but some part of it angers you in a way you do not yet understand. It will take you more than twenty years to untangle this ridiculous aesthetic binary.
As a teen, you hide yourself with eyeliner and mesh. You wear boots and learn to mix a tape. You find out about experimental poetry, you like this idea that identity is a construct that can be bought and sold; can, like your black outfit, be put on and taken off. You choose to believe that foregrounding artificiality and the performance of identity allows art to get at something akin to the complexity of race. The burden of it. Even if you don’t admit it immediately, you know you are being willfully naïve.
You write two books; you become bored with writing because writing is hard. You learn more about film from a new person you’re dating and begin to seek it out at events and screenings, the weird shit that hurts your eyes and burns when it endures, long and slow. You still consider yourself a poet, even if this label seems inadequate to encompass the work you want to make — work built out of awkwardness and noise and the cruelty of hope.
Your friend Tooth invites you to be part of Light Field, an artist-run and collectively organized festival of experimental film on celluloid — a group that previously has consisted only of cis white men. Others who have received this invitation at the same time as you are neither white, nor straight. And even though this collective is full of good faith — fun, equitable, at moments even utopic, even though you know each of you has earned your place— you will not ever be able to satisfactorily answer whether you were invited in primarily as an effort to diversify. Probably you already know the answer.
Adrian Piper’s Food for the Spirit is a 1971 conceptual performance piece in which the artist sequesters herself away in her apartment to read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. She does yoga. She writes and fasts. It is so immersive, she begins to sense she might be disappearing. She cannot tell if the theory is absorbing the substance of her being or vice versa. In order to document the piece, perhaps even to relocate herself, she takes photographs of her body in the mirror, all the while chanting excerpts of the text. She is there but not there. She is too solid to be a ghost, she is translucent, taut and wan. She is neither white nor black. Responsibility for this interstitial unease shifts constantly: he wrote the text, she read it, they share in this seamlessly grafted creation. Her face is calm; I see no urgency in the quest to rematerialize her body. Her face is resolute and fixed; no thinking nor theory can cause her to fully disappear. It is difficult in these photographs to tell which is the prop in the performance — Kant’s book or Piper herself. Which is the fantasy: the formal purity of the conceptual artwork or the reality of the “authentic” Black female self? This question, held in this tense material equilibrium, frozen in the silver of a printed photograph on paper.
Your first Light Field is successful beyond your expectations. You are exhausted. You recommend that no one watch more than eight hours of experimental film in one weekend. You recommend that everyone watch more than eight hours of experimental film in one weekend. You buy a printer from Office Depot for $100 that you fully intend to return. You pack and ship over fifty films. The floor is littered with cardboard and bubble wrap. You sit outside on 47th St. between the two boys in the collective with anachronistic hair who have been working alongside you all this time. You take a drag of a cigarette. You lean back into the concrete. You feel terrible and wonderful.
The reviews of the festival come in. They are positive. You listen to Emily read one of the longer pieces aloud to the rest of the collective in a warm living room adorned with house plants, patterned couches, a dog; the moment feels like a collective reward. This review praises Light Field’s commitment to paying for work, for creating an anti-institutional festival by artists for artists. It praises its communal sociability, accessibility, and inclusivity in an increasingly expensive place to live. It speaks highly of festival programs that test the limits of vision, relate film as a medium to other media, and are purely cinematic. These programs are curated by white men.
Later in the piece, the reviewer conflates your program with Emily’s: she is the collective’s other woman curator of color. He talks about how film in both your programs is more of a starting point for “intermedial wanderings.” He pinpoints your inclusion of elements from the “outer reaches of narrative cinema,” seemingly as a way to set this in opposition to the more starkly experimental or avant-garde. The review is well-written, complimentary; you should be appreciative, but this strikes you as reductive, irks you nonetheless.
For argument’s sake: what is “formal purity” if not what is yet to be interrupted by the presence of a figure — one that may well be gendered or not, Black, or brown — even if from outside the frame?
Purity is not a natural state. Cinema can never purely be cinema, especially when it exists materially as film. Film is not only expensive, but is one of the clearest, most crystalline manifestations of art as human labor. Resolutely ephemeral, its tangled and precise formation nonetheless requires tangible skill to come into being. Always teetering on the brink of destruction or failure, film makes inherent to itself the multiple bodies and touches it encounters in the process of being made; each touch inevitably leaving a mark, these flaws expanding purposefully to fill a screen.
Even when reduced to its bare elements — space, time, light, rhythm, sound — it still seems to me as though the invisible crucible within which film forms itself is effort. And as with all beatific fantasies, the work of cinema is best enjoyed when, like capitalism, we relegate the work inherent in its making to the realm of the unseen, work like:
Emily’s apartment is flooded with septic waste, so we can’t meet there. Can you update the spreadsheet? Did you email Dena? Fuck a landlord. Is the wheelchair lift fixed? Should we have a meeting? What about 7 p.m.? Did you check out that submission we just got? Kioto’s? No, it’s not in this spreadsheet, it’s great though. Who is ordering pizza? Can it be pineapple or mushroom? I can’t believe he said that. I can’t believe no one is worried about this. Are you worried about this? Can you update the thing, sorry, I don’t know what you’re talking about, the church doesn’t have water, Tooth got an eviction notice, Colin got an eviction notice, sorry, do you know of a place? Emily has to move again, it’s the third time does anyone have a place for kitty to stay, I don’t know what I’m going to do, did we get that grant, you left the ticket sales completely out of the budget, well there won’t be enough money, what about a benefit, sorry I can’t do that much this weekend, I don’t have time, no really this time, I can’t, I don’t think he can either? Well I offered Seth $150 + pizza + my soul which as we know is not worth a whole lot in this economy, so we’ll see…
You joke sometimes that the “purity” of film is just the guarded invisibility of the multiple Google Docs, the last-minute sprints made by some in order for a screening to run, while others sit in their seats and endlessly espouse cinematic virtue as though it were an ineffable religious experience.
You go to a film program. In this program, all the films are by Black artists, or Asian ones. All the films are by artists who come from South America, or Europe, or artists who are feminine or queer and — in this particular case, even if they don’t — you feel the audience probably assumes that these films will include some shots of bodies.
The program is great. You notice that the films are divergent in aesthetic and perspective. Some find curiosity in nostalgia, or speculative sci-fi, in formal asceticism, or experimental documentary; some are affirmative and ambivalent, militant or complicit, exploratory or static; some are about subject and object, about light or air or, sometimes, nothing at all.
But before or after this film program you go to, something really harshes your mellow. You read some writing about the program, a text that is usually written to give some context for the work, or to describe its aesthetic qualities and assess its significance. This text is always disarmingly simple, it speaks about the films in the program as a collective group — about how they illustrate the contours of a particular identitarian experience. It sometimes points out their political efficacy, or lack thereof, it speaks about how these films “expand the boundaries” or introduce narrative or history into the cinematic experience in some fresh and unprecedented way. The text you read and other writing like it tend to use descriptors such as “vital” and “brave.” “This is important work,” they say. “We need this work more than ever.”
I hate this text. It has become a tired cycle. It is an example of the way in which films, when curated through the lens of a common identity, can produce in critics and audiences the unfortunate assumption that all the artists in this show must be making work that is also formally and ideologically homogenous. It reinforces an ouroboros loop of critical laziness — programs by X artists are assumed to always be about Y, meaning that when programs by X artists are curated, the focal concept tends to be Y, meaning Y is a topic that becomes the sole province of X artists, and Y is what critics then tend to focus on when they write reviews of shows that mainly involve X artists and so on and so on. All this undergirded by the lingering presumption that work by any artist of color must be less interested in formal experimentation in favor of asserting a subject or politic. We are helpless against it.
There are many ways of asserting a subject. The lack of concern to articulate one in the interests of cinematic purity is also an assertion of a certain kind of subjectivity. You know what I mean.
it is very complicated to make art about race when you are a raced person making art; when you want to show the shadows as well as the light
there is no identity that does not elide another, there is no person who occupies only one identity position, there is no material circumstance that cannot swallow it all
there no ideology that will protect you from being chased down the street by people who are trying to kill you
there is no art that can be fully positive about expressing identity, especially when the world is not affirming of any experience of otherness. humans are not made to be unfeeling about being othered. we live in the world and the world is not correct; art that exists within it is not correct either
at the same time as i am not invested in art being “correct” i acknowledge that there are some things that are undeniably wrong
there is no identity category that makes you immune to being an asshole
i have many privileges, the financial stability to make art being one, but a privilege i do not enjoy is immunity from the burden of having to consider, at every moment, whether or not the way i live my identity is “correct,” and corollary to this, whether the way that i perform it in my art is “correct,” and corollary to that, whether people’s perceptions of my identity will affect the way they view my work
all this sometimes feels more important than the art i am trying to make (this form, style, affect) to everyone but myself
sometimes, hearing the word “diversity” in relation to issues of curation feels like a matter of “correctness.” it makes me feel like you think this is something that can just be rectified or accomplished, as though fixing a lineup is like repairing a door, like you are talking and it seems so easy to talk about it you are talking about it all day, but i don’t know what to say, i have nothing to say to you like i have to live this, this is my life and life is neither correct nor simple
I willingly admit: not all film programs or shows are like the program I’ve described, nor are all texts like the text I speak of. The ouroboros loop of lazy criticality is less common in 2019 than it must have been in 1988. Part of being an artist is being misread. Art itself is unfair. Perhaps it is a privilege in and of itself to be demanding “better criticism” or “more thoughtfulness” for work by artists of color when the work is being shown at all.
A friend tells me he thinks I’m too suspicious. He thinks I should trust audiences more. After all, even if programs are curated, or categorized around identity, plenty of audiences should be able to recognize the variety of perspectives that come with each individual artist, each individual piece, especially here in the Bay Area. Plus, isn’t it better than the tokenism we were so used to a mere decade ago? “Sure,” I say mildly. “I mean, nothing works.”
Robert Storr has said that “Most of the major movements in art were named by people who hated them.” Sometimes it seems as though all genre performs is a spiteful, flattening function, aimed at categorizing and attributing value to what is in reality an infinitely more vast, uncommodifiable, open field.
I believe that the matrix of cinematic possibility is more complex than any formal or identity-based categorization. Abstraction and experimentalism is anybody’s. I believe in the importance of showing film outside of the regulated and commodity-driven spaces of the institution, in film’s ability to become something beyond what it is materially, to bind elements of the world that are vastly different — light, bodies, sound — into a heterogeneous mass of affect.
But like the burden of identity, the presumptions of genre apply to some more than others. Perhaps it is even inevitable that identity and genre are often presumed to be one and the same. And the ability to ignore both for the limitlessness of an open field of experiential cinema is perhaps predicated on the fact that neither identity nor genre is being consistently foisted upon you without your consent.
Later that day, I read Emily Nussbaum’s New Yorker piece on Ryan Murphy, the gay showrunner known for the campy aesthetic of some of his most well-regarded TV series, American Horror Story and Glee. I believe his latest series, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, is a stunning work of experimental television. Delving into the confusion of 90s queer culture, when the threat of AIDS was lesser, but still present, the show is especially sharp in depicting nuanced expressions of gay life. In Paste, Max Brennan calls The Assassination of Gianni Versace a “bold, ambitious, riveting wrestling match between cultural shame and communal pride.” Spanning several contradictory genres, it has neither answers nor consistency. It’s a spangled configuration of queer bodies trying to live in relation to each other, within the awkward arbitrariness of their common identity, while honoring the fragility, intricacy, and mutability of each granular life.
In the profile, Nussbaum recounts an anecdote told by Murphy’s ex-lover Bill Condon about the moment he knew their relationship was over. He and Murphy visit Laguna Beach together, and Condon gets caught in a riptide. As he’s dragged down, he sees hesitation on Murphy’s face, as though he might let him drown.
The sinking feeling of watching, helplessly, as you feel the weight of an audience’s assumptions drag you down.
At the ICA Philadelphia exhibition Colored People Time: Mundane Futures, Quotidian Pasts, Banal Presents, I’m faced with Martine Syms’ Mundane Afrofuturism Manifesto, writ large across one of the exhibition’s gray walls as though it were a work of art.
Decrying “unexamined and hackneyed tropes,” and insisting these “Stupidities” be burned, Syms’ manifesto is an indictment of the exoticizing tendencies of fantastical Afrofuturism. Instead, she calls for an end to the Black concepts and qualities white audiences easily fetishize — from “Reference to Janelle Monáe” to “inexplicable end to racism—dismantling white supremacy would be complex, violent, and have global impact” to “enormous self-control in light of great suffering.” She favors what refuses to be exceptional: “the sense that the rituals and inconsistencies of daily life are compelling, dynamic, and utterly strange.”
The show is full of small pieces that blend into the bland walls: a loop of Kevin Jerome Everson’s 16mm films combining the mysticism of UFO sightings with the dailiness of Black life, archival Black Panther Party newspapers, a framed Getty Images archive photograph of immortal cancer cells mined from the body of Henrietta Lacks (a Black woman from Virginia) without her consent. Thanks to curator Meg Onli’s efforts, the artworks in this show feel not like a set of exemplary objects, but rather as extensions of a critical framework. Colored People Time thus becomes not pejorative term for chronic lateness, but an empowering mode that bears possibility for the disruption of Western perception and capitalist progress.
Here, identity is able to elide the melodrama audiences so often demand of it, in lieu of the persistence of lived reality.
“If you come, it feels boring,” Onli tells WHYY, “Walking around, I don’t know if this exhibition has the typical tropes of a Black art show. There aren’t the color palettes — the color is actually called ‘Lazy Grey’ — but all the works in the show are thinking about how we can imagine an everyday that is mundane.”
Impressively, Colored People Time provides a theoretical scaffold that preempts, plays with, even rejects the audience assumptions and expectations that come with a show centered around a single identitarian node. Perhaps it is a testament to what can happen when there is true investment in diversity work at an institution or organization, rather than for the sake of “correctness” or cultural capital.
It is also a testament to how curation is itself an art form, one that should not be underestimated in its ability to be creatively didactic.
In a moment when there is little money to be had showing art, there is grant funding to be gained in championing “diversity” and “representing underrepresented voices” — and rightly so. It is a joy to be able to view a range of work outside of the upper echelons of the art world and its norms, and for institutions to be able to invest resources in the artists who made them. But grant funding is also based on a set of quantifiable aims and goals, often related to engendering public good. Its language, especially when related to representing or supporting certain cultural communities, can be homogenizing, seeking art that reflects “authentic local stories and experience” or that is “relevant and responsive to a community’s vitality” — language that is then necessarily repeated in describing the artwork that is being funded by it.
We are also in a moment of curatorial crisis, wherein the jobs of those who would ordinarily be responsibly translating complex ideas in artwork for audiences while negotiating the requirements of grant funding are being undervalued by institutions. Institutions that are instead, as Sarah Hotchkiss writes, “attempt[ing] to […] clarify their role within a competitive field of development dollars and audience attention and pare down budgets.”
When the ability to show art is increasingly based on money gained from the ability to describe said art and its function in a specific way, it seems necessary to invent platforms that take that money out of the equation. But the money still has to come from somewhere; without it, you have to work within the limitations of your own.
You try to remember the things of which you feel certain. You try to remember the knowledge you have gained because of, and not in spite of, your constellation of identities, how you live and make work within it:
You know that there is no person (privileged or not), artist, or curator, who is not already tainted by the preconceived notions of an audience.
Even if there are plenty in your collective who would disagree, you know there is no such thing as pure cinema. The fact that film needs to be made, screened, and watched by imperfect people is evidence of this.
You know that film is made from multiple touches. Placing one thing next to another inevitably means creating unintended effects. There will always be some chemical reaction that occurs in the dark, blank stretch of time between one film and another, something unspoken that precipitates when the light comes back and the two senses of time finally meet.
You know that when it comes to curation, you want so much more. Cohesion is overrated. You’d rather watch one film corrode another, you’d rather question the awkward way the second film cradles the first. You want to feel the friction between competing systems and forms. You want a complex and confusing interplay of aesthetic form. You want “cultural shame and communal pride.” You want conflict. You want a program that can make an argument. You want it to feel like art. You want it to feel unfair.
Cauleen Smith narrates the final moments of her 1992 film Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron): “I am privileged. The leisurely ability to pursue an art. To indulge in one’s creative tendencies. Is not an acceptable means of struggling with one’s people. Or so I believed. But I was saved. White liberals saved me from my shame and guilt. watching those motherfuckers writhe in guilt was enough to make me come clean. I am privileged. I am one of the few who can learn to use the master’s tools to make my own. To help my own.”
In 2019, you know that curation is a tool. No tool can ever purely be used for good. You use it because tools these days are hard to come by. You use it because you can. It is what you have. You curate a program for a film festival that insists on remaining unconstrained by the concerns of any financial gain or institutional bottom line despite the very real difficulties of doing so. You feel glad for the right disharmony in your collective, committed to holding an investment in true diversity. You will not waste the opportunity to work together and love each other while still holding competing visions and ideals. You know there is a chance the critical ouroboros loop will watch your program and still use its spongy, abstract descriptors: “vital” or “brave” or “political” or “narrative” or “necessary.”
You know it doesn’t matter. Because in the darkness between one film and the next, when there is nothing but the sound of the turning reels, everyone is still sitting in one room, seeing differently together. You know that all of this; it was for you, for those who can know and see things as you do. It wasn’t ever for them. It never was.