Ira Sachs, Keep the Lights On, 2012, color film in HD, 101 minutes. Production still. Erik (Thure Lindhardt) and Paul (Zachary Booth). Photo: Jean Christophe Husson.
Ira Sachs is known for his mining of various communities: queer culture, art culture, film culture, literary culture. His previous films include Last Address (2010), Married Life (2007), The Delta (2007), and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize–winning Forty Shades of Blue (2005). His latest effort, the semiautobiographical Keep the Lights On, will have its world premiere at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Here, Sachs discusses his various personal motivations for creating the film.
THE FILM COMES OUT OF THE DESIRE to tell our story honestly, without judgment and with a certain transparency. There’s a particular way that gay people learn about their lives in secret, and that becomes the overriding means of narrating our stories. I find that a lack of honesty is what has gotten me into the most trouble in my life. I wanted to make a film that was straightforward about the experiences that I’ve gone through in a long-term relationship, which were fueled, in some ways, by hiding.
The script initially came out of a close reading of journals. What’s interesting about reading journals is the ellipse and the power of the ellipse in conveying time. I hoped to kind of use that as a propelling force. The gaps are what propel the film through time. I specifically tried to convey emotional time with these actors, based on the small shifts of how they related to each other, as characters.
I’ve made a film with a Vietnamese lead actor, I’ve made one with a Russian lead actor, and now I’ve made a film with a Danish lead actor, and I think that there's the sort of intellectual reason of the nature of the outsider, that I'm interested in, as a character. But it also has something to do with a certain kind of acting style that you find in non-American performers, which I am really drawn to, which tends to be the certain level of realism that you find in European performers. There’s a certain interest in the detail of each moment on-screen. It feels very experiential––really exposing the details of life, in some ways.
Ira Sachs, Last Address, color film, 8 minutes.
Before Keep the Lights On, I made a nine-minute film called Last Address that consists of portraits of the last residential addresses of a group of New York artists who died of AIDS. I got very interested in the changing nature of queer life in New York over generations, and particularly because of this idea of a “lost generation.” For me, as an artist, I found that having these relationships with individuals from other generations, as well as the work from other generations, was really crucial to developing my voice. This compelled me to create QUEER | ART | MENTORSHIP, which gives other people a way to really learn and work with artists from these various times. In the most banal way of putting it: We live in isolation, and we gain strength from community. For me, in creating this program is also the sense of re-creating my own community.
I need to remind myself, at some points, that I have permission to make certain kinds of images. The best way to do this is to look at the work of people who’ve come before us, someone like David Wojnarowicz, or the New York artists of the 1970s and ’80s, the age of punk. Punk meant comfort with being outside the mainstream––not to be careful, not to be precious, to be messy, and not to worry too much about what your parents might think. A really important part of being an artist is trying to forget your mother, on some level.
Mats Bigert is half of the artistic and design duo Bigert & Bergström, along with Lars Bergström. In collaboration with Cabinet, they have created The Last Calendar, a project based on the Mayan long calendar calculations for 2012. Their exhibition “Meditations on Divinations” is on view at Forum Gallery in Stockholm until January 31. Here, Bigert discusses the research process for the calendar.
THE INITIAL IDEA FOR THE LAST CALENDAR came while we were working on Tomorrow’s Weather, an installation that uses weather forecasts to explore how we try to control our living conditions by making estimations on future events. We were examining the temporal nature of truth within celebrated ideas, scientific or otherwise, that history has proven to be wrong. The end-of-the-world Mayan long calendar scenario was floating around in these discussions, and I was interested to see whether there were other earlier and precisely dated opinions about the apocalypse. It turns out there were plenty. I pitched the idea of combining these cataclysmic fantasies with the banality of a wall calendar to the editors at Cabinet, and together with their research team, designer Richard Massey, and photographer Charlie Drevstam, we were able to get the project together in time for the new year.
In truth, Harold Camping, the host of Family Radio (who predicted the world would end on May 21, 2011), and his flawed line of prophecies wasn’t the igniting spark for the project; it was more our interest in the mind-set of a person who could convince a large number of followers that the world is about to end––especially someone who could keep doing so, even after being incorrect so many times before. Camping is a good example of the eschatologist in general. These people are usually equipped with a very vivid imagination and an enchanting charisma, but seemingly blind to self-reflection. He would never laugh about his own mistakes. It’s like Amoz Oz has noted on fanatics: What makes them immune against criticism is their absolute lack of humor.
We chose to explore different divination methods. Lars was going to teach my son how to make tin soldiers. But when my son got bored and turned to the iPhone, Lars and I started to play around ourselves, pouring melted tin into water. This technique of divination is called molybdomancy and is still used in Germany and Austria on New Year’s Eve to forecast the coming year. We became intrigued with the random outcomes, these small abstract sculptures, and started to look for other methods of divination. The list of “mancies” (a word which comes from the Greek manteia, or divination) is long and full of poetic ways to interpret the world. We singled out methods we could tweak and fit into the cataclysmic theme of the calendar; for instance, there’s the painting we made with coffee grounds, which looks like satellite images of arid landscapes or brown Yves Kleinian spacescapes. Or there’s our take on meteromancy––divination through looking at meteorological phenomena––a photo we took after an F5 tornado hit Joplin, Missouri, last summer. Myomancy––divination through the study of mice––is illustrated by a labyrinth model littered with mouse turds that we’re now using in a new film.
One doomsayer we found compelling is Joanna Southcott, who was a medium with psychic powers living in London in first half of the nineteenth century. She not only prophesied that a second coming of Christ was underway, but also that she was the bearer of that very child––at the age of sixty-four! It turned out it was a false pregnancy and she died soon after. Regardless of her mistaken virgin birth, she accumulated over one hundred thousand followers who called themselves Southcottians. I recently visited John Martin’s “Apocalypse” show at Tate Britain and was fascinated to see his images of absurd destruction and rupture. They’re really prequels to modern disaster movies. Martin’s Last Judgment triptych seems emblematic for the nineteenth-century when a lot of millennialists were trying to gain followers. The spectacular possibility of being part of that last moment of a crumbling earth is still very riveting to audiences. In fact, right now the Mexican government is launching a PR campaign called “Mayan World,” in hopes of an invasion of pilgrims in December.
As one half of the collective DAS INSTITUT, Adele Röder has often employed printed textiles in the multimedia exhibitions she stages with Kerstin Brätsch. Thomas Chen, designer of the women’s clothing label Emmanuelle, developed his own line after working for a number of other designers, including Thakoon; his designs are currently stocked at Creatures of Comfort in New York and Colette in Paris, among other stores. Röder and Chen recently decided to collaborate on a print for Emmanuelle’s Spring 2012 collection. Here, they talk about the process that led them to the final product.
OUR IDEA was to pick out prints from Adele’s archive, to find something that already had an existence of its own. A few of her prints really jumped out at us, and that’s how our work together organically began. Although Adele’s prints had been used in fabrics before, more often than not they had been shown in combination with Kerstin’s paintings, and always in an art context. So it was really exciting to see them shifted into a fashion context—to see them being turned into something that could be worn.
Early Emmanuelle prints primarily showed continuous, repeating patterns such as stripes. We were drawn to Adele’s prints that depict floating objects, but we realized that if we used them we’d have to figure out how these forms could be positioned on the clothing—that is, how could the print be seen fully on the sleeve of a blouse. Previously, Thomas’s prints were engineered with placement cutting, so as to make interesting geometric patterns. We realized this project would take that idea even further. We wondered: How do you take apart the fabric but not destroy the integrity of the print at the same time? We narrowed our selections down to two colorful prints with gradated stripes. And then we thought very hard about our printing process. We decided that instead of screenprinting, we’d use digital printing, which easily allows for gradations, brilliant color reproduction, and a seamless ombré effect.
We began by producing the patterns on huge black-and-white printouts, and then we held those prints against our bodies to see what worked best. The most difficult thing to deal with was the ratio of the scale of the design against the body. If you blow it up too big, you can only see parts of the print, and if you make it too small, then it’s too much about the print itself. In both cases, the print starts looking decorative. We finally decided to use a specific scale––Adele’s body, if only because she was at hand and more up for the performative aspect of the task. We made a digital dummy of Adele, and then we applied the different scaled prints on her digitally. It was very efficient to work this way.
Adele’s prints have a very futuristic look to them, with sharply defined shapes gleaming in their perfect gradations, and yet we didn’t want the outcome to look too slick. So as we tried to pick the specific four or five colors for the printing process, Thomas kept saying: “Picture Venice—the faded, decrepit look of it, as a mural once considered futuristic but a thousand years later we have come back to it . . . picture it on a foggy morning, when it’s misty out there in front of the ocean.” The names of the Pantone colors were very suggestive as well, “Sirocco” and “Provincial Blue.” But as it turns out, the machination of the digital printer had its own ideas of what colors it preferred. Our whole process was very much about eliminating things. We had originally planned on printing on two fabrics—a voile and a charmeuse—and when the tests came back, we decided to scrap the charmeuse because it looked too shiny and grandmotherly. But with the matte sheerness of voile, you see it but you don’t, so it becomes almost like a tattoo when you put it over your skin.
Finally, it was Thomas’s responsibility to work out the placement of the prints on the garment; the ball was in his hands. We were also running out of time, so we thought, “OK, let’s just do the best we can and God help us with whatever we get at the end!” Throughout the process of working together Adele would sometimes say, “You’re very Zen, always accepting of things as they come!” Thomas’s reply? “Well, if only I had another choice.”
Cally Spooner’s latest project involves a new body of writing that she is producing over a period of eight months at International Project Space. Titled Collapsing in Parts, the piece also includes a series of events that act as footnotes to the evolving text, which is being published online as it is written; these events will take a variety of forms, including performance, a radio broadcast, and a printed poster. Spooner’s work for IPS continues until March 2012.
AT THE HEART OF MY WORK LIES AN ANXIETY over finding something to say. This anxiety plays out in my theater, film, and writing work, in which I am always looking to achieve an act of live thinking by shifting from an individual or private space into a collective one. Hannah Arendt is central to my research for Collapsing in Parts. In her 1958 book The Human Condition, she explored ideas of publicness and action in public by addressing different thinkers’ historical ideas about whether it may only be possible to perform and achieve excellence in a public sphere.
For Collapsing in Parts, I’m publishing eight parts of writing online, almost monthly, and this public pressure is helping me write. I’m not sure it would be possible to develop this writing in private, so the text goes out whether or not it’s any good. I know it’s a pretty narcissistic endeavor, but I’m interested in the possibility of constant revision, as well as reception in real time, and this seems like the best way of achieving it. This project is about making progress accessible through the idea of having to perform or deliver in front of an audience, while drawing parallels between the pressure to deliver within the workplace and the pressure to do so in the cultural sector, or the world of sports. Various popular and literary characters, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tiger Woods, and President Ronald Reagan, who have had to negotiate the space between private and public life, have all become case studies for my research and appear as characters in the writing.
Human communication today can be very poor in performance spaces such as the workplace, the boardroom, or the classroom, where emphasis can fall on progress based on results, rather than on discourse and speaking. In this project I’m trying to find sites in which to perform the problems surrounding this. Open-form musical scores from the 1950s, by the composer Earle Brown, for example, have been an important point of reference. Even though his works are improvisational, they depend on fixed structures as notated in his scores; this stable framework can provoke countless variations and possibilities. Through these structures, I’ve been thinking about alternative models of organization that have been tailored to heighten creative aptitude and production. In the case of Collapsing in Parts, my stable score is The Human Condition. It provides a textual framework in which a number of people, including actors and friends, can perform and deliver different pieces of work relating to my understanding and application of Arendt’s ideas.
Collapsing in Parts catalyzes thought into action through a kind of double narrative. On the one hand, the project is a catalogue of live footnote events, while on the other hand, these events are simply a subtext to the evolution of the eight parts of writing. The project frames permutations of various movements and conversations as they solidify into work. For instance, the first footnote was a theater piece, the second a printed poster, and the third an exhibition of new work curated through conversation. Footnote four will be a film screening investigating performance, exhaustion, and productivity. When this entire system of research is over, I think the whole project will culminate in a silent film that relies on gestural communication to convey the dynamics of the last eight months.
Outfits from Vivan Sundaram’s “GAGAWAKA: Making Strange,” 2011.
For veteran installation artist Vivan Sundaram, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. His latest show, “GAGAWAKA: Making Strange” at Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi, argues Sundaram’s case with forty-five elaborate “wearable sculptures” made in collaboration with designer Pratima Pandey. “GAGAWAKA” is on view December 21–27.
THE PHRASE “MAKING STRANGE” is a quote from Bertolt Brecht, which alludes to distanciation and alienation in contemporary times. But I think my title works even if you don’t know that reference: I use ordinary, everyday materials––plastic cups, sanitary napkins, bras––to make unusual garments. I am literally making the familiar strange. Obviously, the title is also a play on pop culture: “Gagawaka” nods to Lady Gaga and the FIFA World Cup song “Waka Waka.” Sure, it’s Dada-esque but it is also connected to fashion, since the title sounds like a brand name. The invitation to this exhibition clearly indicates this: I say “GAGAWAKA presents . . . ” as if it were a company doing the presenting rather than me. Fashion is a commodity, but these are sculptural garments, so they cannot be commodified in the same way. They were produced to be looked at––and maybe to be worn once in a while. They maintain a tension between art and design, evoking multidisciplinary elements that are central to my practice.
Notions of recycling, skill, craft, and the Duchampian readymade have always interested me. In the 2008 mixed-media installation Trash, for example, I dealt with the underbelly of the urban, which is continuously being destroyed and marginalized in “New India.” Yet despite this assault by so-called city development, the city re-creates itself. Delhi is the metropolis of the twenty-first century––Calcutta and Bombay were the cities of the nineteenth and twentieth century. But what happens to those who live outside the developmental agency of capitalism and power? In “GAGAWAKA,” I reuse trash by making garments out of objects that people usually throw away.
On December 18, a fashion show in the gallery displayed thirty garments during an hour-long program for 225 invited guests. Santanu Bose, who teaches at the National School of Drama in Delhi, directed it. The show involved dancers, models, and performers walking on a ramp eighty feet in length and seven feet in width. Since this was a narrow area for the performance to occupy, the audience felt like they were part of the experience. A private performance also took place in the gallery with my works from the past twenty years placed on a hundred-foot-long “wall.” From 1998’s House/Boat, for instance, I reused the boat, which is now very fragile, while parts of the prow from 1996’s Carrier appeared too. The rubber flooring from 2004’s New New Delhi, an installation of a bed and a room, was also included. Yet only very observant viewers recognized them. Of course, in that context, my previous installations weren’t the same anymore––they were transformed into props.
When the show opens on December 21, the “wall” will have been dismantled and the works will be interspersed with the garments. Visitors will hopefully wonder where “fashion” ends and “art” begins. In India, there is little discussion about this overlap. But elsewhere fashion is entering a new phase. Alexander McQueen’s retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum in New York this year attracted large crowds. Why? I find the idea that garments can be bought to be collected, rather than to be worn, intriguing. It means they can be seen in the same context as art objects––the museum. Perhaps collectors used to think that clothes were too fragile to buy. But these days, art is fragile too. McQueen’s seashell constructions remind me of Arte Povera works made from perishable materials and fabric. McQueen was a master craftsman; I don’t have his skills, but I think that my “moving sculptures” are both monumental and fragile at the same time––like a dress made out of paper cups or a flowing assemblage of two hundred red bras, beautifully stitched with lace. It is mad, but so spectacular!
Mark Lewis, Black Mirror at the National Gallery, 2011, still from a 4k 35 mm film transferred to 2k 35 mm film, 7 minutes 21 seconds.
Mark Lewis is a Canadian artist and filmmaker based in London. In 2009, he represented Canada at the Venice Biennale. Here he discusses the relationship the camera has to composition in his 2011 film Black Mirror at the National Gallery, which has screened at the Venice, Toronto, and Vancouver Film Festivals, and is currently featured in “No More Drawing” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The show is on view until January 2.
I’VE ALWAYS LOVED the following haiku by Garry Winogrand. When he was asked, “Why do you take the pictures of the things you do?” He said, “Simply to see what they look like as pictures.” That’s what I try to do, and that’s how I understand my way of working. I make work to see what happens when I do it. I know that seems unbelievably banal, but for me it’s the only way I can work. Even if I have an idea of a good composition, I want the machine—and in Black Mirror at the National Gallery this means the camera, the mirror, the apparatus that carries the mirror and moves it through the space, and even the space itself—to come up with a composition through a collaborative exercise. The idea that the machine already has these possibilities programmed inside of it is something that feels right to me.
The film deals with a black mirror designed by Martin Szekely, and it literally plots the movement of this mirror as it travels through three of the small galleries in London’s National Gallery, in the rooms devoted to Dutch landscapes. The black mirror is mounted on a large cinematographic motion control machine, and the camera is mounted on a similar machine. These two machines have a balletic pas de deux in the galleries as they move. The mirror eventually finds an image of interest, and that picture, like the mirror itself, is circular. In a way, I thought of that work—Hendrick Avercamp’s 1608–1609 A Winter Scene with Skaters near a Castle—as the mirror’s doppelgänger, that in this picture it might find something of itself.
In general, we share a sense of what a good composition might look like. For Black Mirror, I thought of the historical relationship the idea of the “good composition” has to the Claude glass. The Claude glass was an instrument that was supposed to reveal a good composition out of a mass of detail. Painters in the nineteenth century were advised to hold this black glass up to a landscape and the condensed, reflected image would reveal whether or not you had a good composition. The point is that the mirror reduced the image.
When we started to shoot at the National Gallery, I wasn’t absolutely sure how the film was going to play out. I knew what the ending was going to be, and I knew more or less what the beginning was, and then I wanted to see what would happen when the mirror and camera started to move around. I did a lot of articulations and feints and eventually settled on the camera move that you see. I tried to imagine that if the mirror—and it’s very similar to the things I’ve imagined for previous films—if the mirror had a kind of consciousness, or a kind of sense of itself in relationship to other things, what would it look at? And I guess that it would skirt over most of the paintings, because it didn’t recognize them or had no interest in them or whatever. The mirror looks at the Vermeer for a while, and it looks at one or two of the other paintings, but in the end the only one it really looks at is Avercamp’s. In fact, what I think it does in the end is make a new composition out of that work and of the two other paintings that are on either side. It creates a kind of pictorial coherence that it didn’t know it was going to find.