Hoolboom Interviews Reinke, Part Two
The Mendi is another found footage short in which you return to footage first used in a few of The Hundred Videos. Do you have an archive of material that you draw from in order to produce new work? Did you feel that the original material, a CBC ethnographic documentary about a Papua New Guinean tribe called the Mendi, wasn't exhausted by your first approach? Could you imagine continuing to rework this same footage, again and again, in all of the work you would make in the future? Will it never end?
I do still use material gathered many years ago. I don't have that much of it. I actually don't like having to deal with mounds of things. In the early nineties I worked at the University of Toronto, in the School/Education building as an audio/visual technician's assistant. Like many libraries, they were getting rid of their 16mm collection. I took a few dozen films, rented a flatbed for a few days and spliced together a few reels of material. Whatever caught my attention. I had no idea what I would use this stuff for. I just new I didn't want any excess: anything I took was something with a high probability of being put to use. I took these reels and got them transferred to betacam. The Mendi was the one film I kept relatively intact. Every scene was compelling, and I loved the strange commentary, which was definitely feminist, but still alarmingly condescending to the Mendi. Right now, I can just remember one line, "The Mendi have minds like computers." I think I have three half hour reels, now dubbed from betacamSP to miniDV, from those sessions, plus a few things from the Prelinger archive. I'll continue to draw from all of it, as long as it compels me. I would like to become someone else, or at least develop a larger sense of things, but as it seems I am doomed to remain exactly myself, I assume this material will compel me always. Of course, any particular piece of material could never be exhausted. The question is whether one's interest in working with the material could be exhausted, and I don't think it will happen. I haven't, for instance, dealt with the voice-over on the original film. Some people, by the way, get perturbed when they see material re-used, as if I'm cheating them. I'm happy working with a small bank of images/footage. I never yearn to have massive amounts of material. I would like more footage of brain surgery from the fifties, though.
The beginning of Ask the Insects offers a title warning viewers about the tricks of light to come, the illusions cast in the theatrical space. It reads: "Friends, avoid the darkened chamber where your light is being pinched." Could you talk about the origin of that text, and why it is followed by the album cover for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon?
The quote is from Goethe. He's writing against Newton's theory of colour and light, in particular the prism experiments. For Goethe, the artificial situation of passing a beam of light through a prism in a darkened room could not produce valid results as it was so far removed from everyday perception/experience. Today, in the age of empiricism, we have no doubt Newton was correct and that Goethe's scientific theories are quackery. Yet there is also something modern about Goethe's stance, which seems akin to phenomenology in its preference for the experience of things as they appear complexly in the world rather than the abstractions of scientific experiments in which limited conditions are imposed. But, of course, I don't expect many people will recognize the Goethe quote, which is unattributed in the video. In the video, the quote seems to be speaking about the condition of being a spectator in a movie theatre. Still, the two light-pinching apparatuses — prism and cinema — don't seem so different. At any rate, it is always wise to begin with a warning, if only for issues of liability. The video is the first work that I've thought of as, if not actually being animation, then being about animation, in particular the relation between the animated/digital image and its possible referents in the immanent world.
The quote refers to a prism and a darkened chamber. The music during the segment is from the album. The title of the album refers to a place of darkness (if not a chamber) and the cover of the album depicts light being pinched through a prism. So when the image resolves into the highly recognizable album cover (for though all the visual material in the section is derived from the cover, it is not recognizable as such until the end) it refers to two separate things: where the music is coming from and what the quote is referring to. Usually audiences laugh when the image resolves, though there was no laughter when you showed it in Rotterdam.
As with many things in my recent work, it is merely a group of associations. It is not a set of linear connections that form an argument or narrative.
Ask the Insects is an episodic work, reminiscent in its shaping strategies to Spiritual Animal Kingdom, Sad Disco Fantasia and Anthology of American Folk Song. Can you talk about this work in relation to your Final Thoughts archive?
Originally I thought that I'd simply present components from the archive of Final Thoughts chronologically. I put out Final Thoughts: Part One with the plan that there would be a part two, etc. But the work was dissatisfying, as it sat half way between a chronological assembly of discrete fragments and a finished work. Because the fragments are, of course, not discrete but made in relation to one another, and in dialogue with one another. A structure that arranged them chronologically, without attention to the ways in which they relate, was untenable and I quickly withdrew the work.
When I made Spiritual Animal Kingdom I was thinking of the structure of a variety show on tv. There were recurring comedy bits, musical numbers, and bumpers. Everything related to everything else in one of three or four ways. Then I had a section — a giant book a neurologist produced about his wife after she died called something like "The Brain of a Pianist," slices of her brain carefully photographed. And this material didn't relate directly to anything else in the work, but I put it in any way and discovered it was fine: it belonged despite me not being able to pinpoint exactly why it belonged. Then I didn't worry about it any more. I realized I wasn't building an airtight machine, or even a machine with a particular reason to exist, a particular function.
Sad Disco Fantasia is even more loose: it is about living in Los Angeles as a kind of flaneur, the death of the mother, and the impossibility of home, but many of the sections have nothing to do with any of these. And although Anthology of American Folk Song is even looser, I think that on a deeper level it is completely tight, coherent.
One could say the first two videos are produced under certain thematics, which however loose, was still too constricting. Or, perhaps not constricting at all, since I did not stick to the themes, perhaps it just seemed more and more like a false claim. To the question what is this video about, where does all this material come from, how does it relate, I now can simply answer, they are all final thoughts and individual titles are assembled from materials collected in the archive called Final Thoughts. And that is all, for what is more final than finitude.
All of those videos are about the same length, about 26 minutes. Ask the Insects is much shorter, with fewer sections. It seems to me a series of introductions to the graveyard walk. Okay, not really a series of introductions at all. Still, the video seems to have two parts of about equal length: the walk, and everything leading up to it. Everything leading up to it is animation (though the narrator, of course, claims otherwise).
In the second episode of Ask the Insects, your voice over states, "The reader has proved inadequate: simple-minded, easily distracted, and mean and petty." From the death of the author you move to an inadequate reader, implying of course, that the readers of this movie will be inadequate. Do you feel that the work you have made up until now has prepared viewers for what's to come, raising the skills of viewership so that you can make increasingly difficult or complex work? Movies like this are difficult to draw together, it is so willfully fragmented, jumping from one place to another. What do your musings about burning books, a walk to the yards of grave and school, an abstracted display of processing, the forms of rain and insect life have to do with one another? What is the relation that joins these into a unity, a whole?
Yes, I still think the idea of an oeuvre is important. Even if the author is dead, other concepts have taken its place, like the signature effect, or a contract between the text and its implied reader/s. Individual works within an oeuvre teach us how to read other works. If we only had one Emily Dickinson poem, it would mean nothing. The poetry of Emily Dickinson only makes sense as part of a larger body of work. Genre can do this as well, of course, but one always wants to exceed genre.
And why not insult the audience? I had already warned them, after all. It is more than their light being pinched.
I hope I'm getting better at whatever I'm doing, but I hope this doesn't necessarily mean becoming more and more complex, like Joyce's path from The Dubliners to Ulysses to Finnegans Wake. That's kind of a modernist, teleological concept. But despite this, my work has become more complex, and I do hope viewers are drawn along. If you know my previous work, for instance, Anthology of American Folk Song, will probably not seem incomprehensibly strange. The other route, the poet's route, is, rather than increasing complexity, increasing simplicity and succinctness, stripping down to the essentials. The two paths are not incommensurable: individual components are often getting simpler and simpler, while the way they function in relation to the others in increasingly complex.
What is the relation that draws the individual components of Ask the Insects into a whole? Well, as I said, it isn't a single theme. Nor is it a particular story or argument. I don't think of the components as fragments, really. They have their own kind of completeness; they do their business and we move to something else. There is no intercutting between components; intercutting would require fragmentation. A question posed in one component will not be answered in another (although it is not uncommon that the same question will be posed again, in a different manner). It is also important to note that the fragments (their arrangement) is not random or arbitrary. Not arbitrary at all. Its just that the mechanism, the logic if you like, behind the arrangement — the rationale — is not one of story, argument or theme.
Does Ask the Insects even hold together as a single, discrete work? I think it does. I think there is a certain force and persuasion to the thing. A flow of affects, images, ideas. Things laid side by side that remain, in some way, what they are, are not subjugated into a mere piece of an argument or story or list of illustrations for a particular theme. (Although, in a limited way, Ask the Insects is a list of illustrations for some possible relations of digital animation and indexical, lens-based representation. But that doesn't really adequately describe what the video is about or what it does.)
Could you write about the closing sequence of Ask the Insects, did you take this camera walk knowing you would deploy it as the denouement of this movie?
The last section is derived from footage I took a few summers ago. I walked the same path I used to walk to school, from Kindergarten to grade 8. The school is at the top of a hill, on the right hand side. A graveyard is on the left hand side. When I went to school, there were no sidewalks on the long residential street leading to the school, but then the village is small and almost everyone is bussed in, often from quite far away. Today, there is a sidewalk on one side. When I get to the top of the hill, I pan between the school- and grave-yards. My father is buried there, and many relatives/ancestors, though of course, being an outpost in the new world, the European generations don't go back very far. I wanted to make the assertion that every grave bore my name. I didn't actually remember where my father was buried. If people die in the winter, they are not buried until the ground thaws (this is still the case today) but I think he died in early spring. At any rate, I hadn't been to his grave since the burial and thought it was away from the road, closer to the river. But when I got to the top of the hill, the grave was right there, along with other Reinke stones, so it does kind of look like all the graves bear (bare?) my name.
I liked this footage very much. Apart from anything else, it looked good. I shot it with my new three chip camera and wide angle lens. As the walk proceeds, the sky becomes beautifully overcast and a few drops of rain begin to fall. But how to actually use it in a work, I had no idea. It did identify a certain limit to my work: my strict avoidance of the autobiographical even as the possibility of the autobiographical — sometimes even as a kind of audience tease — is never very far away. Here was material that was interesting only with the biographical connection apparent. How it is used in Ask the Insects does not seem to me the end of the story, so the same incident will also be part of a video that I thought I'd finished but needs revisiting Regarding the Pain of Susan Sontag (Notes on Camp).
The entire walk was too long for the video, maybe twenty minutes. At first I just sped it up, wanting to keep it a single take. Then I doubled the image and superimposed them, adding various filters to the two layers. In addition to extensive colour correction, most notably something called Image or Motion Stabilization in FinalCutPro, which of course makes the image less stable and more jittery. Each layer has a different rate of jitter/stabilization. Other filters, too. The image is much more processed than the earlier episode in the video, in which the narrator talks about adding a filter to a film clip that abstracts the image. Then I did end up cutting the shot, hacking it apart rather abruptly. When I get to the top of the hill, I say, panning from right to left a few times (added, of course, in post) something like "Now that we get to the end of the road, the top of the hill, it is time to make a few introductions: schoolyard, graveyard; schoolyard, graveyard; school, grave."
I did not know it would be the end of Ask the Insects. I did not know what could be done with such a thing. Certainly much of the other stuff in the video leads up to it, in various, often obscure ways. The shot of the buck in snow is from Bambi. It is Bambi's father telling him wordlessly that his mother is dead. The monologue about abstracting an unidentified representational image through processing gives another possibility for the processing of the walk footage: it could so easily be repressed through the application of a single filter. The third last section refers to walking/journeying: "Every day a bit further, until the horizon is breached." The second last section (before the walk) ends with a non-sequitor resolved in the last section, "Like a graveyard where every stone bears your name." Other sections warn or insult the viewer, speak about the weight of paternal/ancestral knowledge (book burning). Still, all these connections do not add up to a complete exploration of a single theme! The fact that many sections feature precipitation is of no less relevance.