Jem Cohen is a distinguished filmmaker whose work is currently on view in New York at the Jewish Museum and in the group show “September 11” at MoMA PS1. Below, Cohen discusses the short newsreels he has recently made about Occupy Wall Street. The newsreels are screened, one per week, before features at the IFC Center and are also available here.
I WENT TO WALL STREET ON SEPTEMBER 17, the first day of the proposed occupation, and to be frank, I left dispirited. There’d been a call for twenty thousand to descend on the area––rather high hopes––but what I saw outside of the absurd stretches of barricades was largely empty streets and a few hundred protesters at Bowling Green going through what looked to be the usual motions. I roamed around, shot a roll of Super 8, and left. A few days later, I heard people had actually set up camp in nearby Zuccotti Park, so I went down with friends who wanted to deliver supplies, and this time it seemed more interesting. By my next visit it felt really interesting and I knew my initial impression had been way off base. Something was happening down there.
Soon after, John Vanco, who runs the IFC Center, asked what was going on film-wise; he said, “Where are the newsreels?” I told him OWS was being documented to an almost ridiculous degree. Many long-form documentaries would probably result and there were already short advocacy pieces being made, propaganda for the cause and not necessarily inventive on a filmmaking level. But the notion of the newsreel began to rattle around in my head and suddenly I was making my own. Happily, they’re showing them now at the IFC, like theaters did in the 1930s and ’40s. I see it as one way to bring some sense of what the movement is like to a random sector of people who aren’t necessarily going down to Zuccotti.
The films are modest, small observations rather than broad declarations. There’s nothing definitive about them and they’re sometimes bumpy, searching experiments, like the movement itself. Some were shot in a day, cut the next, and just put out there. I didn’t want them to be precious. As a “film person,” I’m also just finding my footing with high-def digital––recent technologies that allow immediate turnaround proved irresistible here. That said, the omnipresence of HD, which can make everything look slick and “cinematic,” concerns me. Some of the pro-movement pieces I’ve seen have such a polished veneer; they speak in the language of advertising. While I understand the urge to make TV-ready tools that might be effective for a mass audience, I’m leery of both the prettification and the very idea that everything––including a movement inherently critical of corporate takeover––demands “branded messaging.” Luckily there are other traditions; each of my films is dedicated to a deeply engaged yet deeply renegade filmmaker (Dziga Vertov, Humphrey Jennings, Joris Ivens, Agnès Varda, Chris Marker).
My concentration has been on making simple documents of a movement unfolding in daylight, rain, darkness, and in a moment of vital expansion––the Times Square mobilization of October 15. Of course, it’s never actually simple, especially with a movement changing so rapidly––there are things going on that are so inspiring and others that are really a drag. Do you document them both? And how do you do it without betraying either ideals or actualities? I am, after all, making these films in solidarity, as a participant, but I have real qualms about the suppression of ambiguity that almost invariably marks agitprop. And I don’t have a plan about how to jack these into the frontal lobe of the masses; my priority has just been to make and deliver them, both to the theater and online. Contrary to current belief, not all filmmakers are made to be publicists . . .
The people at Zuccotti Park are tired of having cameras shoved in their faces. The constant watching and recording––it’s curse and blessing. But hopefully everyone can understand that documentation has to happen to bring this movement to the wider world. The mainstream media cycle is inherently against focused attention and complexity. It’s already falling off, another reason I feel we have to make these things for reasons and angles and timelines outside of the usual ones. I’m interested in how these newsreels will look twenty years from now.
Chris Marker sent a symbol of a cat in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s a humble, beautiful reminder that a logo can be a sign instead of a brand, a measure of camaraderie rather than targeted marketing. It’s also a reminder that even those who’ve witnessed countless such struggles, with all their naïveté, stumbling, and repetition of past mistakes, can still find hope and fascination when some small action catches and flares into unforeseen possibility.
Jem Cohen, NEWSREEL No. 2, 2011
Mary Beth Edelson in her studio, 2011. (Photo: Emily Hope)
Mary Beth Edelson has lived in New York since the 1970s. Active in the civil rights movement, she was a founder of the Heresies collective and journal as well as an early member of A.I.R Gallery. She is a key voice from the first generation of American artists to base their practice in feminist issues, and she has shown her paintings, collages, installations, and photographs worldwide. “Burn in Hell,” two solo shows of collages, opens at Balice Hertling & Lewis in New York on November 10 and at Balice Hertling on Paris on the 17th.
THERE IS A FEMINIST ADAGE: The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. To which I say: Let’s get some other tools! Fuck his house—who goes there anyway? I’ve always felt that we can claim our own tools by deeply examining history, by researching the eras when women were revered in a different way—or so the myth goes. This is why I am so interested in ancient goddess figures—for example, the enigmatic Baubo, the trickster Sheela-na-gig, an Egyptian bird goddess, and Minoan snake goddesses. All four of these figures can be reinterpreted and repurposed, and thus they show up over and over again in my collage work.
I’ve been making art since I was twelve years old and have saved basically everything. The first task in trying to organize these exhibitions was to sift through and narrow down this massive amount of work I have produced—since I am really, really old. When I was in school, artists were either sculptors or painters, and for a long time I was just a painter, but I arrived at a point where I realized that I didn’t need to follow such a narrow road. In the early 1970s, I was living in Washington, DC, and very involved in a Jungian seminar. I was fascinated with Jung’s ideas about the collective unconscious and tried to make work that depicted that—very presumptuous of me, but to some extent it was good and became important to me as a feminist. The critique that Jung made of the symbolic world, myths, and the figures therein was liberating, and around that time I began working with fire, photography, collage, and performance. I was still painting, too! Over time, though, I began to understand that what Jung offered was still in the end a patriarchal construct, and I broadened my approach and analysis, informed by feminism.
The title of the new show references a project I made in 1994, Combat Zone: HQ Against Domestic Violence, a three-month-long storefront space in Times Square that was sponsored by Creative Time. The most successful thing I did there was to invent ways for women in abusive situations to use self-defense. While working on that project I also started an artist’s book about Lorena Bobbitt, exploring what it meant for a woman to castrate a man, and what effect it had on culture. The book included eighty-one drawings and is the anchor for the Paris show.
My interest in Bobbitt is obviously a feminist one—I had a point of view about it immediately and wanted to examine and express that. I started thinking of her as Saint Bobbitt because she really did something for all women: She retaliated. In addition to the book, I’ve also created a lot of other drawings and a sculpture of a Kali figure that I made out of a mannequin. She has a number of arms and a girdle of knives around her waist as well as a bracelet of severed penises around her arm. In short, she is decorated. I first exhibited the work at Combat Zone and put this very dramatic lighting on it. It sums up my feelings about the Bobbitt situation, a situation that I feel the same way about today as when I first heard about it—I thought it was really funny. As someone once said: A hundred ten million women worldwide are survivors of genital mutilation, and then there is just John Bobbitt––one man, one name.
The Berlin-based artist Simon Fujiwara is known for his fictive autobiographical performances, installations, and lectures. He was the recipient of the 2010 Cartier Award and participated in the Fifty-Third Venice Biennale. His latest production, a Performa 11 commission titled The Boy Who Cried Wolf, premieres at Abrons Arts Center in New York on November 9 and 10.
THIS IS MY FIRST WORK FOR A THEATRICAL STAGE. Three short performances will be presented on a revolving stage, each with its own set. The first act is “The Mirror Stage,” and it is set in my hometown museum, the Tate St. Ives. It is a so-called coming-out story, in which an AbEx painting by Patrick Heron supposedly turns me gay. From theories about abstraction as the dissolution of figuration, to the use of the painting as a pattern for IKEA, the entire, absurd story is told to an eleven-year-old boy. The New York–based kid plays me at the age that I had this sexual epiphany but also plays himself, a child actor, asking questions about his own role in the story.
Act two, titled “Welcome to the Hotel Munber,” is set in a loose reconstruction of the bar my parents owned in 1970s Franco Spain, in which the story of a failed attempt to write an erotic novel based on my parents’ lives is told. Oscillating between erotic fiction readings and cool analysis of those readings, the story will be serenaded by a Spanish guitarist becoming, at times, like musical poetry.
The final part is new and was written specifically for New York. The title is “Proposal for a Wedding,” and it’s based on my last visit to the city, in 2010, when I came here to look for new material for this final act. I found nothing until my last night, when I got into a cab to visit some friends; I sat on something uncomfortable and discovered a camera. My first instinct? To tell the driver. Second? To see what was on this camera. The photos were a confusing collage of a number of weddings that the couple who presumably owned the camera had attended over the summer, and ended with their honeymoon-like holiday, starting in Paris, with photos of them in front of the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, and then finally in New York, which is probably the day leading up to the moment they lost the camera in the taxi. They have pictures of themselves in Grand Central, Times Square, and at a hockey match. The subject matter of the images is banal, the weddings visually repetitive, yet there are subtle differences among them; one couple has a wedding cake made out of a pile of cheese, while another has canapés presented on slate rather than on silver trays.
For this new work I’ve hired my best friend from high school, who is an actor named Phineas Pett, to play himself as the part of my best man in a farcical drama in which we attempt to restage all of the weddings from the camera onstage. Phineas begins by introducing the story : “I have no idea what I’m doing in New York, but Simon told me about this proposal he has for a piece about a wedding, and he said he needed a best man for it, so I’ve been brought over . . . ” In some ways it is an anthropological case study of these poor people’s lives that I’m showing on a giant screen. That in and of itself has its own moral implications about privacy. On the one hand, the photos are very intimate, because it’s material from another person’s life, but on the other hand, I feel comfortable using them because these people never take photos in which anything is actually intimate. This discussion is played out between Phineas and me until the climax, when I discover that perhaps I’m not as different from the happy couple in the camera as I would like to think I am.
View of “Readjusting my commitment to a greater legibility, or substance thinking and substance extended,” 2011. Justin Matherly, Matter asks no questions, expects no answers from us, it ignores us
(ordering crystals to assume another form of existence), 2011, ink-jet monoprint, spray paint, 21 1/2 x 15 1/2”.
The Brooklyn-based artist Justin Matherly has participated in numerous group shows, including the 2010 White Columns Annual and SculptureCenter’s In Practice Projects. He is known for his large-scale cast concrete sculptures and statues that often feature ambulatory walkers and other medical devices. Here he discusses his exhibition at Bureau, which is on view in New York until December 18.
READING IS FUNDAMENTAL to my process. There are other elements at play throughout, but text––thought––is the overall structuring element that permits entry for me in terms of the specificity of a project. How the ideas connect to one another, what sort of interaction is created, and how something affects another thing is the process, which is arrived at through a combination of inherently open intuitive reasoning and factual reasoning.
I am currently reading Malevich’s essays on Suprematism, Spinoza’s Ethics, and various texts from Johann Winckelmann through to German Romanticism. The cast of characters that informs my work is continually growing, and they are always ready to be of assistance when called upon. There is never really a final end to a project, just material points created along the way. Consequently, the engagement with the textual within my process is meant not as an illustration of this or that thought—or text—but as an intensive engagement designed to concretize the thought, so to speak, and to employ it as any other material for building––effectively subsuming the text, idea, line of reasoning, et cetera, within the work so that it is as inseparable from the object as its final material form is. And so the text doesn’t remain apart from the object; it is buried fully within the work and becomes part of its fabric.
I have begun to utilize a bulletin board as a mnemonic device with which to structure a project. I arrange images, notes, and more on the wall in such a way that things can easily be removed, covered, or added. This happens in conjunction with reading and manifests the first incarnation of the ideas for a work. Once the ideas and forms are clear and distinct (as much as is possible) in my mind, I usually create a “positive” form out of rigid foam, utilizing both additive and subtractive methods, from the chosen reference image. This foam “version” is only a further attempt at understanding and is how, at that point, I understand the original form. In other words, this “version” is now the original form that dictates the structure of the final object in that it will become the actual interior of the cast concrete form and will, finally, be discarded.
The materials used for casting this final object––a combination of Tree Gators, rigid foam, brush-on polyurethane rubber, and hot glue––are chosen for their flexibility and, as opposed to the idea of a traditional mold, which is to reproduce precisely a form, for their inherent inability to do exactly that. This requires me to rethink the form in its negative existence and to react appropriately to follow this or that line or curve, directing the object to a greater or lesser extent.
The material is then cast in concrete. I trust it will do what it will. The combination of concrete with the unpredictable mold is what ultimately determines the final form.
Carsten Höller’s first survey exhibition in New York, “Experience,” consists of merry-go-rounds, giant slides, sensory deprivation tanks, and spinning mobiles, among other experiential artworks. Here, the former scientist discusses his ambition to induce states of “madness” by creating immersive artistic environments that test the limits of human perception. The Stockholm-based artist has taken over the entire New Museum, and his show will be on view until January 15, 2012.
ARE SLIDES ONLY FOR CHILDREN? I really don’t think they are, and I can’t see any reason why adults only use stairs, elevators, and escalators. Sliding is a very safe thing to do—it’s very cost-effective, it’s very fast, and best of all it produces an incredible moment of madness. It’s hard to describe this specific feeling of madness in words—voluptous panic?—but I’m sure that if people used slides every day, it would change their lives. In some ways, my entire show is set up to make you mad.
Our culture tries to control everything we encounter in our lives—and we have learned to manage our surroundings quite well. The luxury we can afford ourselves now is to try and let go, which is exactly what I’m proposing to do in ”Experience.” I hope that people who visit the show are able to let go and to see what happens if they forget about these things that they think they need to predict their daily lives. In other words, I hope that people begin to just let experience happen the way it will and that this sense of madness arises from it. Our culture denies this possibility, maybe because the madness is too much or has been too much. In former times, the rise of consciousness produced the means to control madness, but now we can give it some space again.
Because the show is so much about self-experimentation, I’ve used the museum as a body. When you are invited to create an exhibition like this, often what happens is that you come to a place where an architect has made a strong statement, as in this case. And then it’s this Moby Dick situation, because you are in the belly of the whale. In “Experience,” it’s as if you’re within a head and body but one that is not yours, that you invade like a parasite with your own thoughts and your own ideas about yourself and, of course, your own experiments. Many of the works in the show are tools that can be applied to your feeling of presence, to the concept of the self. It’s almost like you are exposing yourself. If you were a strip of film, for example, the show would be the light, producing an image that’s specific only to you and what is inside you and that only you can see. In some ways, it’s a show without any preconceived images.
My work is a proposition—because some of these pieces may not actually work on viewers, or, rather, participants. You always have to see them as artworks, and they have a practical side—you can interact with them—but they also provide something to consider. The way we perceive the world and ourselves is necessarily through the lens of culture, and because there are many different cultures existing at the same time on this earth, there is no reason to believe that our reality is the only reality. There must be something more. My work arises from a built-up frustration that this can’t be it, that daily experience can’t be this limited. In some ways, my work is about science fiction, trying to find the other, a culture of madness. I often don’t believe we’re ready for it, but still, it’s coming.
Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark is the first biography of the celebrated film critic, and the latest book by the New York–based writer and editor Brian Kellow. While he illuminates Kael’s rise penning many important film reviews for the New Yorker from 1968 to 1991, Kellow also pays close attention to her early years as the manager of the Berkeley Cinema Guild, a historic movie theater in California. The book is available this month from Viking Press. On November 11, Kellow will be interviewed by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill at the 92nd Street Y in Tribeca.
FOR ME, the most exciting part of any biographical research is the interviewing process. I do a lot of interviews, and I’m puzzled by biographers who don’t make every effort to get hold of primary sources. I’ve found that my interviews often become a kind of scavenger hunt: If the person you’re talking with likes and trusts you, he may throw a lot of other phone numbers your way, leading you to people you hadn’t considered. After four books, I’ve also gotten pretty good at determining if someone I’m interviewing isn’t reliable. I think a lot of people don’t mean to mislead biographers, but they have memory lapses or they’ve been dining out on the same terrific story for so long that they’ve come to believe it’s true, which it may not be. For this book, I interviewed about 160 people from different chapters in Pauline’s life. I always do all of my research before I write one word; I have to have the strongest possible sense of where I’m going before I begin. Some people didn’t seem to want to talk about her: I was sorry to miss Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and a few others. The biggest surprise I had in the interviewing process was getting the whole story from UCLA professor Howard Suber about how Pauline filched his research for her essay “Raising Kane.” That was kind of a shock, you know? I checked it very carefully, and there’s no question that she did it. Strange, because for the most part, she was quite aboveboard in her behavior. I guess we all have our moments.
I knew from the beginning that I desperately wanted to do this book, but I wasn’t sure it was going to work. Pauline herself made a point of the fact that her body of work constituted her autobiography. That was sort of a clue for me, actually: At a certain point, after she got to the New Yorker in 1968, going to the movies really was her life. And then I got to thinking about how I could make that work dramatically. And I figured out that I could trace the development of her taste through her early years, and then show how that all played out when she got the New Yorker job. I also thought it would be a good idea to interview a lot of the directors and screenwriters, even some of the actors, whose work she reviewed. I wanted to ask them about the repercussions of her reviews––when they thought she was on target and when they thought she was a mile off. I thought that would give the book added dimension. I wanted to include a real sense of what was going on in the movies during the 1960s and ’70s. Actually, I can’t imagine that the book would really work without that information.
Pauline’s friends seem to like the early part of the book most of all––I think because she compartmentalized her life. Even for people she knew well, her early years were a mystery. It’s strange: Pauline was exceptionally tight-lipped about her growing up and her beginnings in San Francisco, her marriage. I remember reading an interview somewhere with Jacqueline Susann where she was asked her age and she said something very Jacqueline Susann–ish like, “Just say I was born when my first book published.” I think Pauline kind of thought that she was born when I Lost It at the Movies was published—that is, in 1965. I always work hard on my books, but I think I worked harder than ever on this one, because I knew she didn’t like the idea of having a biography written and I wanted it to be as complete and detailed––and also as fair––as possible. In her personal library, which is now at Hampshire College, she often writes hilarious comments in pencil in the margins of books—things like “bullshit” or “What a pontificating old poseur”—I think that one was in Frank Capra’s autobiography. I don’t know what she’d write in the margins of my book. She’d probably be horrified that it even exists.