Feature by: Leo Goldsmith
Posted on: 09 July 2009
The NY Eye + Ear Festival is, as its name suggests, a weekend-long event dedicated to sensory overload. Part-record fair, part-performance showcase, and organized by the non-profit arts organization Pendu, Inc., this year’s festival also features a program of short films by three women—Rachel Blackwell, Liz Wendelbo, and Sarah Lipstate. Each of the filmmakers in the “Women of NYCinema” program incorporates several elements and media of avant-garde cinema into her work – hand-painted celluloid, video effects, sampling, structuralism, collage – and each places a heavy emphasis on music and soundtrack. Two of the three filmmakers are recording musicians, and all of the films screening here are scored with the kind of music to which the festival is largely devoted: woozy noise, oneiric drone, and ecstatic minimalism. Though working in a music-heavy cinematic idiom (with distinctly heavy music), and somewhat arbitrarily grouped by gender, the films of Lipstate, Wendelbo, and Blackwell variously demonstrate an impressive range of textures, modes, and functions of experimental film—as installation piece, internet art, and music video.
Sarah Lipstate is known perhaps more widely for her music than for her visual art: she has been Parts & Labor’s guitarist since early 2008 and performs by herself as Noveller. (Opening this year’s No Fun Fest, Noveller turned in a remarkable set of lovely and tightly controlled solo guitar noise, a highlight of a festival that featured various noise luminaries like Sonic Youth, Bardo Pond, and Thrones.) But Lipstate’s short films are nonetheless very ambitious, employing an array of formats in dazzling combinations: Super8 and/or 16mm, as well as computer-based editing and effects like superimposition, chroma-keying, and collage. Memory Scars, for example, incorporates images from two earlier works (Carousel and Aeaeae) and features split-screen black-and-white Super8 footage of a carousel on one side and rotating tops on the other, while what looks to be painted 16mm is assembled and superimposed in criss-cross patterns over the top. The visual stimulation is nearly maddening – the movement within and between the images makes it nearly impossible for the eye to settle on any one for long – but the soundtrack lulls the spectator into a hallucinatory calm with delicate, plinking guitar loops.
Hallucination, memory, fear, and dreams dominate Lipstate’s films, and abstraction and representation enact a kind of tug-of-war within them. In films like Memory Scars or the spectral Interior Variations, splotches of light and liquid color bleed into evocative and often dark imagery. (This would partly suggest Stan Brakhage as an influence, but the often-subtle whimsy in Lipstate’s abstract images more strongly invokes the work of Len Lye.) Medical imagery – in the form of x-ray stills, fluoroscope footage, and radiation therapy – frequently recurs in her films, as in the somber but affecting Radiation in Moderation, in which a woman’s cancer treatment is rendered with what seems an unusual amount of montage for the filmmaker. And in Phobia, abject and unexplained terror is conveyed (in somewhat antic fashion) by actors in scene intercut with sparsely hand-tinted footage of marlin-fishing. All of these films are accompanied by Lipstate/Noveller’s own soundtracks, loops and ragas of gorgeous ambient guitar noise that runs the gamut from chiming to buzzing to vaporous, as the situation demands.
Liz Wendelbo’s work is easily the most formalist on this bill: her series of fourteen three-minute shorts, Opticks I-XIV, is shot entirely on film and explores, among other things, structures of regimentation, the controlling limits of the film frame, choreography and other organized bodily movement, and the subculture of the goth-girl. These the filmmaker subsumes into a style she refers to as “cold cinema,” an idiom which explicitly positions the filmmaker as a resistant to various forms of circumscribed behavior inherent to cinema, social behavior, and history.
The shorts fall into three distinct sequences: “Maxwell Tartan Ribbon” series, features film test-cards layered in different colors through the use of in-camera superimpositions and various filters; “Rituals” deals explicitly with iconographic and cinematic limits and patterns placed on a female body, and explores themes of dance and fashion; and “Excavations” employs different types of archival footage (historical, or from the artist’s personal collection) to reinforce the preceding themes of regimentation and control. All of the archival footage in this last sequence is military in content – marching bands parade in formation; Allied warships, tanks, and fighter planes invading Oran in 1942 – which rhymes with the sequence in “Rituals” which features a woman dressed as an officer marching, then dancing.
A musician as well, Wendelbo is one half of minimalist synth duo Xeno & Oaklander, and the other half, Sean McBride, serves as composer for these films, giving nearly all a slightly forbidding analog synth soundtrack recalling that of a 1970s sci-fi film (though the scores are not themselves minimalist in any musically purist sense). These lend the films not only some of that coveted coldness, but also a certain retro-futurist tinge, suggesting a very deadpan tongue-in-cheek attitude while fitting in with the subliminal themes of control and structure.
Rachel Blackwell’s videos operate primarily in the world of emotional associations – chiefly, fear – created and fed by the mass media. Her video Yes! Witches catalogs the various forms of witches found in films and television (those of Dario Argento and Walt Disney are among the most recognizable), along with references to others who embrace the term (Yoko Ono) or else have it thrust upon them (the victimized “witches” of Ghana). For Blackwell, as for many others, the symbolism of the witch is explicitly linked to masculine paranoia about female sexuality, but here as in her other works the spread of fear is inextricably linked to the media in which it is found and proliferated. Employing a typically lo-fi aesthetic, Blackwell shoots directly off television sets, cutting and remixing the images with an analytical sense that both exaggerates and undermines the totalizing effects of television. In her 17-minute split-screen video loop Death for Sale, images of the carnage and patriotism of the Iraq War attack the viewer from two frames, with only an occasional reverse-shot image: a woman cringing in fear, a sign that reads “No escape.”
The effect is uniformly claustrophobic, and the films operate much like the medium of television news itself, manipulating the viewer on an emotionally immediate plane. But even within this confinement there is variation, improvisation, space to contemplate. There is the sense of being trapped, but also the chance to meditate the contours of that trap. In the service of this mood, the three works shown here – Death for Sale, Yes! Witches, and Meditations of Death – all have soundtracks by Jesse Gelaznik (of the noise collective Dirty Churches) that, like the image, both envelope and liberate the spectator, effectively surrounding the spectator with meditative drone and loops.
The “Women of NYCinema” program will screen on Saturday, July 11, at 92YTribeca.