CONVERSATIONS Mousse 49
Behind the Work of Michael Snow and Sharon Lockhart
by Andréa Picard And Andrea Lissoni
The interviews by Andréa Picard and Andrea Lissoni investigate all the aspects— stylistic, formal, conceptual, logistical, discretional—behind the works of Michael Snow and Sharon Lockhart, artists from distant generations who share an extraordinarily innovative way of using the film medium and a unanimously recognized authoritative role in the art context. The conversations reveal their practices in detail, from technical choices to the innermost structuring of their works.
by Andrea Lissoni
The question that permeates the work of Sharon Lockhart with sensual, disarming harmony is “what is the place of human beings in the world?” She chooses never to represent it by the statement or performance of her subjects, but by creating the best possible conditions to share in it. Nevertheless, since sharing is ironically impossible to represent in the form of text, we can say that a film or an installation by Sharon Lockhart generates, with authority, the typical definition of the “classic”: it is formative, because by nature it is open, so as to remain forever generative; at the same time, it asserts values, establishing and rooting certainties; it is inexhaustible, because the passage of time, the transformation and accumulation of experience of its habitués, make it always fertile and not immobile or transparent, in spite of appearances; it is perversely always more authoritative than the readings and interpretations of which it is the object, either making them illustrative or emptying them as structures; it acts on the entire body of the works of its author, expanding it in a reticular, mutable and orbiting formation, challenging the convention of linear evolution and growth (therefore of progress) in favor of the constellation that establishes an intense dialogue not only with other classics, even genetically very different ones; it always establishes a founding relationship with both the present and with history, dancing between testimony and source. It has no markedly local or regional characteristics, nor is it watered down by generically global stylistic traits, but it undoubtedly has deep roots in an identity.
Finally, it is flagrant: that is, it prompts an experience with the audience that happens only in that moment and that space, not before, not after. It therefore typically acts like a pleasant memory, without drawing benefit, further enriching or revealing itself through paratexts or informative appendices.
It is the particular compositional form of every work by Sharon Lockhart—research, time spent “in the field,” shooting and combination/editing, arrangement in space—that defines the uniqueness, or that sharing of an intimate territory between the space of the work and the viewer. If it is an installation, it expands beyond the limits of screens and architectures that make themselves invisible and makes the audience part of that territory, slowing the time of perception and physical movements. If it is a film, it emanates a sort of projective gravitational force that transcends and eludes the cinematic device as structure (the room, the seating, the screen, the projection), or as language (suspension of disbelief), shifting the viewer into the field of action itself. It is in this sense that the work of Sharon Lockhart incessantly converses with the avant-garde choreography of Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton, the cinema language of Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Andy Warhol and James Benning, and—inevitably—with the perceptive foundations of minimalism in sculpture and music.
ANDREA LISSONI: The encounter. How do you decide that a situation, a matter, an issue you encounter through research becomes the subject of your work? What happens between the process of the encounter—for instance with Noa Eshkol’s work—and the decision to further develop it into an artwork?
SHARON LOCKHART: I move from research to work in a fairly organic way. In the case of Noa Eshkol, I knew I had to make something as soon as I met the dancers, saw them dance, and was given an overview of the wall carpets. I immediately started correspondence with them about the possibility of doing something the following year. I felt an urgency to develop the project quickly because of the dancers’ age and their relative obscurity. Over that time, we talked through the details and made arrangements. Filming usually involves a good deal of planning to get together a production team and arrange locations and the rest of it. The exact form of the final work is never something I can plan on. It also is a process that grows organically.
AL: What strikes me in every new installation of yours is that you create the conditions for an encounter to take place with the audience. It is usually an encounter with a community, which is thereby being either depicted or evoked through a series of its representatives. I believe that happens through your specific language: your shooting and editing decisions. How and when do you decide that it is the right moment to begin shooting?
SL: Usually the shooting is planned for a specific date, and I have a certain amount of time to prepare for it. That is one of the only elements in my production that is predefined. Once I know I’m going to shoot something, I plan for a time to do it and try to give myself the time I’ll need to prepare for it. The editing and final forms can take a long time.
AL: I’d define the environments you usually portray as resonating landscapes, inherently performative (I guess this affects dramatically my impression of the “encounter”). Such a particular condition of balanced intimacy between bodies and landscape arises from the way you position the camera, the length of the shots, the editing process. Can you go through these three moments?
SL: I put a lot of thought into these elements before I shoot. I often try things out in video or still photography to figure out the elements. Scouting is an important activity for me, and I am fairly particular about it. I look for the right location as well as the proper light and weather. If I don’t get it right, I might reshoot if it is possible.
I’m not sure if you mean the length of time the shots take or the amount of space between the camera and the subject. The length of time the shots take is usually something structural, such as the length of a roll of film or the length of an activity. Sometimes, if it doesn’t seem right, I’ll edit it down to a more appropriate length of time. If you mean the physical space, it really depends on the subject and how much space it takes for the action or activity to happen. In Double Tide, I wanted the clam digger to enter the frame and be able to dig clams on a path that took her to the water’s edge and back to her skiff and out during the time it took the sun to rise or set. In Pine Flat I tried to vary the distance of the shots.
AL: Is architecture (of screens, of walls) something that you use in order to set up a space to allow the audience to experience what is presented? I particularly got this impression when walking through the different stages of the exhibition Four Exercises in Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation.
SL: Yes, architecture is extremely important in how viewers experience an artwork. I have collaborated with the architecture firm of Escher GuneWardena for 15 years to come up with ways of considering how bodies move through space and how that affects their perception of both themselves and the artwork. I have tried to avoid the typical black box so as to make the audience aware that the work includes a physical relationship to the projection. This was why my early works were reserved for cinema spaces, and why I’ve made such an effort to always alter the architecture of my projections to fit the museum or institution they are presented in.
AL: How do you manage to stretch, capture, and deviate from the audience’s conventional perception of time?
SL: Time and the perception of time are definitely interests of mine. I couldn’t give you a prescription for how I work with it. Each film requires something different.
AL: How do you work with sound? Do you record sound when shooting?
SL: Yes, I always record synchronized sound. Although I make an effort for the sound to appear very natural, it often requires a lot of sweetening in postproduction. Actually, the sound design takes much more time than the editing and visual work. I often work with my sound editor and mixer for months to make the raw sound into a composition. I always try to record a healthy amount of ambience, which is often more difficult than one would expect, because most sound recordists are only practiced at recording enough sound for a short shot and are used to recording dialogue. Since my shots are quite long, I have to record ambient sound that runs the full length of the shot. When I did Pine Flat, I worked with my dear friend and collaborator Becky Allen. She has been the composer of the music for most of my films, and came to the job of recording sound as a composer who understood my work and how detail-oriented I am. On Pine Flat she recorded and designed the sound with me, and it’s one of the few films where I had all the ambient sounds I needed for postproduction.
AL: Is there any sort of script or blurb you followed when shooting Pódworka, Four Exercises in Eshkol-Wachman Movement Notation, or the project you are working on right now?
SL: Yes, there is a plan for almost everything I shoot. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a script and it always allows for whatever happens during the shot. The participants in my films are not actors and so the more freedom they have, the better. In Four Exercises we knew all the dances and had everything worked out as far as staging. In Pódworka we talked to the kids about what they would do and how they would enter and exit the scene but left the specifics up to them. They responded to their situation however they wanted to. My most recent project is the first time I’ve used dialogue as an object since my first film. The dialogue was something the kids created on their own. We did have workshops the previous weeks to encourage the development of their own voices, and some of the conversations seemed to come out of that. Yet we often were completely surprised at what they came up with. Again, the staging was worked out ahead of time but the dialogue was something the children developed on their own as they were talking.
AL: What did you learn from Mike Kelley? And from James Benning?
SL: It’s only been the last few months that I’ve started to deal with Mike’s death. It hasn’t been easy for any of us who knew him and the old Los Angeles art world. I feel Los Angeles has changed, and his death is somehow related to my perception of that change. He was a mentor of mine in grad school and had a huge influence on how research has been a part of my practice. Mike was the master of cultural research. He had collections of so many oddball things that I never even knew existed, and for each of these collections he had an entire history and well-reasoned logic. He was so aware of the ideological underpinnings of culture. I loved his enthusiasm for research and he loved to share it. He was just fucking brilliant. It’s terrible that he left us. As for James, he was not my teacher in school. He has been a friend since we met in 1998 at a screening of Goshogoaka. We have grown very close over the years and have always shared work and ideas. It’s interesting that you are the first to ask me about Mike and James together. I’ve never thought about them as a tandem until now. Thank you for making the connection. Both of them are Midwestern working-class guys with incredible insight and work ethic. James has been so helpful in looking at my work and producing solutions when I’ve been stumped regarding how to proceed. He has a great sensibility when it comes to putting an image together and, much like Mike, he is uninterested in convention.
AL: I’d be curious to know what do you think of both Michael Snow and of Agnes Martin.
SL: I think both of them are fantastic artists. I love their embrace of structure and their inventive ways of engaging it. Still today, I regret not making a portrait of Agnes Martin when I was invited to by W magazine. Sometimes I get too wrapped up in the meaning of an image before it’s made and take too long researching and planning. This was the case with Martin. I admired her work so immensely, I felt I couldn’t just pop off to New Mexico in two days and photograph her without a conceptual plan for how I would engage her photographically. But I blew it because she died shortly afterward and I never got to make the portrait.
by Andréa Picard
Michael Snow is one of Canada’s greatest and most renowned artists, and a highly influential experimental filmmaker. At age 85 he is in his prime, with energy to spare and an unflagging sense of humor and adventure. He continues to travel the world to give concerts and lectures, and to attend his many exhibitions.
Snow’s legendary film Wavelength (1967) is a monument of film art and continues to spur feverish discussion (about the zoom, the drama, its rising sound wave, its nested meanings, its comments on the Renaissance). Having lost none of its power or radicalism today, it remains one of the most referenced and quoted films ever. The Austrian avant-garde master Peter Tscherkassky recently said in an interview that seeing Wavelength at the age of 18 at the Austrian Filmmuseum “changed everything.” Chantal Akerman, who famously credits her life in film to Michael Snow and Jean-Luc Godard, has said that Wavelength exploded the possibilities of the medium with its conceptual and formal rigor and extreme immersion into cinema duration, with all the metaphors of consciousness and eliciting of performance that this entails.
While Snow’s filmography is incomparable in extending film and video’s aesthetic and sonic properties and possibilities, his full body of work is even more diverse. Imbued with intellectual gamesmanship and a sophisticated sense of amusement, Snow’s artistic pursuits betray his love of free jazz, his ties to modernism, and his passion for the exploration of visual and acoustic phenomena. From Back and Forth (his “educational film”) through La Région Centrale (the “ultimate motion picture”) to So Is This (a silent film consisting solely of text on screen), Snow has continually foregrounded the mechanics and material of filmmaking and created complex image-sound relationships that deeply affect the viewer’s sense of perception, their physical and mental equilibrium. His candid treatment of male desire has also caused occasional debate, and was recently the subject of a revisionist homage by Ursula Mayer in her 16-mm double projection Cinesexual (2013), which reworks Snow’s seminal installation Two Sides to Every Story (1974).
That sculpture has always been integral to Snow’s artistic endeavors is apparent in his work in different mediums, from photography to slides to installation. The artist’s sense of objecthood, including the interplay between recto/verso (Two Sides to Every Story), form and its representation (textual or imagistic), and “forming” through framing have all been lifelong pursuits. A recent major exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (Objects of Vision, 2013), which featured a number of abstract form-sculptures, underscored to what degree Snow is a master of directing of our gaze onto the world. Along with a major exhibition of his photography work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Photo-Centric, 2014) and his upcoming exhibition at La Virreina in Barcelona (Michael Snow: Sequences), which features an impressive cross-section of work in different mediums, Michael Snow’s vast, shape-shifting corpus continues to extend beyond the screen.
ANDRÉA PICARD: Your upcoming exhibition at La Virreina in Barcelona combines sculpture, installation, photographic works, sound installations, and film in the form of Wavelength. For many, you’ve been defined as a filmmaker and musician first and foremost, and yet you’ve always been multidisciplinary. How do you approach medium, and how do these material decisions affect one another? Perhaps the Walking Woman Works say much about this?
MICHAEL SNOW: A definition of sculpture that says that sculpture is the art of objects seems quite solid, but the boundaries of “object” can be in flux (if the object moves, for example). And the making and presentation of moving-image works has always had indefinite aspects compared to “sculpture”. Moving-image works belong to the family of “painting”. I’ve tried to work with what I understand to be the definitive aspects or qualities that are special to each medium. This can make works that are special as experience because they are possible only with these particular arrangements and materiality. Walking Woman Works (1961-67) were about showing that the “same” image in different mediums is not the “same” image. One Walking Woman Work for instance is called Little Walk, and it is a looped projection of what was originally an 8-mm film, projected onto a white Walking Woman cutout. Simultaneous with the La Virreina exhibition, the Filmoteca will show a series of screenings of most of my films. Wavelength will be shown twice every day in its own little theater as part of the exhibition. The video installation works will include Solar Breath (Northern Caryatids) (2002) and SSHTOORRTY (2005). One of the sculpture works in the show is called Scope. Made in 1967, it is purely an object (or several objects). It is actually a very large periscope; its internal images join the two facing walls and include, in a pictorial sense, “images” of the spectator looking through and at the central object. It’s not a hybrid; it’s a sculpture that contains images.
AP: I’ve often heard you refer to having a repertoire in some of your films, for instance the deployment of specific camera movements in Wavelength, <—> (Back and Forth) (1969), and La Région Centrale (1971). Does this structural interest inherently relate to music in some way, whether via variations or repetition? More than almost any other filmmaker, you’ve fully explored, activated, and prompted the physiological—perhaps even psychological—effects of duration and movement, and elicited a certain eye and ear control.
MS: Because music and cinema are both time arts—like theater and unlike (most) sculpture—the connections are quite strong in general. And yes, some of the same classificatory terminology is useful in discussing both music and film.
AP: As with Jean-Luc Godard, you’re a master of wordplay. How has language, whether textual or notational, informed your work? I think specifically of “Rameau’s Nephew” by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974) as a film that harnesses formal layers, language itself, literary invocations, encyclopedic tendencies, and witticisms in a consistently inspired aesthetic mise-en-scène. It’s a beguiling mix of intellectual and conceptual complexity and light, humorous gestures, and a major statement on the image-sound relationship in cinema.
MS: I am honored and happy to hear that description of Rameau’s Nephew. It is gratifying to know that it has had such a memorable, happy effect. During the three years it took to make it, I was obsessed with speech and recorded speech. In making films, the soundtrack and the picture are separate, unlike in video where they’re the same entity. This separation allows for modification in the relationship between the two. While the synchronous actor-speaker and the speech of the “talkie” film is deeply successful as representation, I felt that it invited modification. A lot of interesting things can be done by physically altering recorded speech and its relation to the imaged speaker. Rameau’s Nephew is subtitled “For English Speaking Audiences” but uses English, French, Spanish, Cantonese, German, and many invented languages. The soundtrack is recorded speech, not “speech.” I wrote all the scripts.
So Is This was made in 1982 and is formally opposite to Rameau’s Nephew, as it is silent. It concentrates on film’s capacity to control durations. It’s all text, which I wrote. Each word is shot separately for a precise duration and each word (they’re all part of grammatically correct sentences) is framed differently according to its size. The book called The Collected Writings of Michael Snow, published in 1994, recently provoked a surprising little endeavor: the oldest text in it (from 1957) is a short poem, and a few months ago I was approached by the Toronto sound artist Mark Templeton asking for my permission and participation in making a CD and a DVD of readings of and commentaries on the poem. Several people will participate.
AP: Framing has been a central motif in your work, with the window in Wavelength perhaps being the most iconic instance. Do you ascribe a political or metaphorical dimension to this recurrence? A comment on ways to see the world?
MS: Framing is selection. It clearly says: this is what the maker wants you to see, not what is not shown! Moving the frame, as I did in Wavelength and in a completely different way in La Région Centrale, effects, by purely cinematic means, one’s sense of balance, which can be physical as well as fictitious.
AP: The re-formation of images and perspectival play seem omnipresent in many of your works—sometimes not so obviously, like the digital re-formation of a Filippo Lippi painting in *Corpus Callosum (2002). Or your use of slides and transparencies, which seem to emphasize “two sides to every story”. Would you say a Cubist tendency runs through your work, in that pictorial and representational phenomena are refracted and layered in order to explore an alternate, perceptual reality via abstraction? For me, SSHTOORRTY is exemplary of this tendency.
MS: Your use of the word “re-formation” is pertinent. The realism of cinema—the suspension of disbelief—can have degrees, and I’ve tried to maintain the possibility for the above-described experience, oscillating with the experience that “realism” is an abstraction. If that isn’t a room up there on the screen, then what is it?
*Corpus Callosum is not a horror film. I tried to make it perceivable that the warpings of the actors’ bodies were not a depiction of something “real” but a “picture”.
AP: Elements of fiction are present in many of your films. Was there a clear starting point for this?
MS: Wavelength was an attempt to make a range of readings possible, in the same work, of realist imagery as well as abstraction and purely non-representational passages. Fiction, or a condensed possible narrative, were at their most extreme in the memory relation between the death, or falling to the floor, of the intruder and the later phone call describing the “death”. SSHTOORRTY is the only purely narrative film I’ve made. The Story, however, has been Shortened by the fact that the film of the little staged incident has been cut in half, with one half superimposed on the other, making a Short Story Shorter, but encouraging repeated viewings of the simultaneous “coming and going” Story.
AP: Was the urge to make Slidelength evident after Wavelength?
MS: Wavelength is quite handmade (for example the zoom itself was manual) and during the shooting I used plastic sheets, theatrical gels, and filters held in front of the lens. I also wanted to feature this made-by-hand aspect in Slidelength. It’s a gallery work, not a cinema work, and I thought of it as a kind of “painting”. That the visible marks in a painting were made by a handheld brush can be part of our perception of it. I wanted to do something similar to photography. My hands are visible in most of the slides in Slidelength. My still photography just had a very satisfying retrospective, “Photo-Centric” at the Philadelphia Museum. What I’ve tried to do with still photographs is similar to my film/video: to use methods or materials that are specific to photography to make visual experiences that couldn’t happen in other ways. Imposition uses four superimpositions. That one can control the size of the print is an important factor in Multiplication Table or Door or In Medias Res (the photograph shown on the floor is the exact same size as its “bottom” subject, a Persian carpet). The two-sided transparencies Shade and Powers of Two (which are both in the La Virreina show) are almost-not-there two-dimensional slices of reality. Anyway, I think that the goals of my sculpture works relate to fairly pure ideals of the making and experiencing of objects, on the one hand, and of making and experiencing images on the other.
AP: In recalling some of your moving-image installations, you’ve actively tackled questions of distance and participation—questions I consider integral to the exhibition conditions of moving images within galleries and museums. Do you consider the sculptural or architectural environment, and viewer participation, in your installation work?
MS: Yes, in the moving-image installation gallery works that I’ve done, I’ve tried to include the architectural aspect (which is the frame of the work). Obviously, the installation influences where the spectator can move or stand or sit. In The Way (2011) is a video work that is projected onto the floor and involves the decisions of the onlooker as to how to physically interact with it. They can walk on it, or they can look at it from its sides. So it’s a work of quasi-sculpture.
AP: With the film WVLNT (Wavelengths for Those Who Don’t Have the Time) (2003) and the installation In the Way, you seem to be wryly commenting on contemporary conditions of viewing art.
MS: Yes, WVLNT is a somewhat satirical digital version of Wavelength, designed for any computer screen and for the viewer who inevitably is in a hurry because all the world’s info is pressing to be seen. It’s a “translation” of the film Wavelength.
AP: Do you think we’re all too distracted to look at art today?
MS: There’s certainly more to look at and listen to now than there was 20 years ago. What is new doesn’t seem to be crowding out the “traditional”; some people seem to be able to understand a wide range of mediums. Even (surprisingly, to me) new painting, judging by the evidence of the art magazines, especially Border Crossings.
AP: Technological prescience—from the cosmic dimension of La Région Centrale through the digital reshaping of time and space in *Corpus Callosum—is present in many of your screened films. Yet lately you seem to be more interested in exploring the performative nature of the gallery space.
MS: You’re right that in the last few years I’ve been more interested in moving-image works for a gallery situation rather than for the cinema. Also I’ve been active musically. During the 2014 exhibition I had in Philadelphia, I played a two-piano concert with Thollem McDonas. I’ve played several concerts with the trio of Aki Onda, Alan Licht, and me. We played in Japan recently, and I also played a solo piano concert in Tokyo. Then later, at the Drake in Toronto, there was a real-time projection piece modifying the video image of that 30-minute solo. The La Virreina show has several sound installations: Piano Sculpture, Diagonale, Hearing Aid, and Waiting Room.
AP: As a practicing artist for more than 60 years with an immense body of work, you’ve always embraced and thrived through collaboration, whether performing music with your band CCMC and those just mentioned, or making films with Joyce Wieland early on. Or experimenting with latest technologies with innovators such as Pierre Abeloos (who is responsible for the machine-camera mount) for La Région Centrale and Greg Hermanovic, whose “Side Effects Software” is employed in *Corpus Callosum.
MS: Joyce Wieland and I collaborated in a very modest way when we made the film Dripping Water (1969) together. Two much more extensive collaborations were with the wonderful Toronto filmmaker Carl Brown. In making To Lavoisier, Who Died in the Reign of Terror (1991), Brown chemically modified each reel of film. And in making Triage (2004), he and I made an “exquisite corpse”. Without sharing any info about what we were going to do, we each made 30-minute films to be shown side by side. Two soundtracks were done separately by John Kamevaar, who hadn’t seen the films until the premiere screening. Triage is one of my favorite works. “Collaboration” isn’t the right word for what I did with Pierre Abeloos or Greg Hermanovic. They provided crucial technical knowledge and practice, without which La Région Centrale and *Corpus Callosum could never have been made.
AP: You’re also a gifted and avid writer. Do you have any texts forthcoming?
MS: Yes, the book Michael Snow. Sequences: a history of his art will be published soon by Ediciones Polígrafa of Barcelona. It is mostly written by me. There is also a text by Bruce Jenkins and an introduction by the editor, Gloria Moure.
AP: You lived in New York during a very fertile time, and you continue to travel significantly. Is Toronto a good home base for you?
MS: Living in Toronto is a habit. We live in an area that is central, a short walk to the museum. It is all three-story houses and big trees, no stores, no apartment buildings, completely residential. My grandfather and grandmother and some of my aunts and uncles all lived in this area. But choosing where we live was not in any way guided by that. It just happened.
AP: Is the term “avant-garde” still relevant today?
MS: There is so much global variety that it’s hard to know what’s ahead of what. I don’t think it’s a useful term any more.
Sharon Lockhart makes photographs and films born out of extensive and deeply engaged periods of research, during which she establishes relationships with her subjects, building and maintaining long-lasting friendships. Working frequently with children, Lockhart is at once anthropologist, sociologist and ethnographer, creating conceptually rigorous, formally precise, and socially and historically grounded portraits of individuals and communities. Her work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at major museums worldwide, including Kunstmuseum Luzern, Bonniers Konsthall, CCA Ujazdowski Castle, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Israel Museum, Kunsthalle Zürich, the Vienna Secession, and the San Francisco Museum of Art. Her newest film, commissioned by the Liverpool Biennial and the Kadist Foundation, is an extension of her work with young Polish women and the writings of Polish-Jewish philosopher Janusz Korczak. She lives and works in Los Angeles.
Michael Snow (Toronto, 1928) is one of the most important and influential film-makers of the 20th century. Throughout his career Snow has worked with painting, sculpture, video, films, photography, holography, drawing, books and music. As a musician he has performed solo as well as with various ensembles (most often with CCMC of Toronto) releasing numerous recordings of his music. His films have been the subject of retrospectives in many countries and are in the collections of several film archives, including Anthology Film Archives in New York City, the Royal Belgian Film Archives, Brussels, and the Oesterreichisches Film Museum, Vienna. Snow has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1972) the Order of Canada (Officer, 1982; Companion, 2007), and the first Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts (2000) for cinema. Snow was made a Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres, France (1995), in 2004 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Université de Paris I, Panthéon-Sorbonne. In 2011, he was awarded the Gershon Iskowitz Prize.
Originally published on Mousse 49 (Summer 2015)