PRINT September 2010


HOW DO YOU SHOW what’s not there anymore—or what’s not there yet? Answers run throughout the work of both Lucy Raven and Thom Andersen, who trace processes and places that are gone, hidden, or changing so rapidly that we can hardly keep pace. Raven’s photographic animation China Town, 2009, currently showing at MoMA PS1 in New York, features thousands of photographs arranged in a loping, stuttering sequence that tracks the production of copper wire from the metal’s mining in Nevada to its processing and use for electrification in the vast Three Gorges Dam in central China. Andersen’s landmark films Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) and Red Hollywood (1995), are precisely calibrated montages of cinematic clips that reveal, respectively, the movie industry’s grip on its city and its engagement in the suspicion, surveillance, and censure of global politics.
Far from the stock-in-trade didactics of documentary or metanarrative, Raven and Andersen each offer audiovisual experiences that toy with the forms of time and media themselves. Artforum invited the two artists to meet in Los Angeles and talk about their mutual commitments to unearthing the past and picturing what is to come.

Lucy Raven, China Town, 2009, still from a photographic animation, 51 minutes 30 seconds.

THOM ANDERSEN: How did you think about the processes of work you filmed in China Town [2009]? I like the idea of using stills in the movie, jumping from one still to the next. Paradoxically, it clarifies what’s going on. Is that what you had in mind?

LUCY RAVEN: I’d always had the idea to make China Town as an animation and to work from still photographs, which I’d never done before. I think the question of how you show work and how you show an industrial process clearly is really difficult, and one function of the stills was to slow down the moving parts enough to see them better.

TA: So how did the film expand to include China and the ocean?

LR: Slowly. I found out that the copper mine I was photographing, in Ruth, Nevada, used to smelt its ore down the road in the town of McGill, but in the 1980s, during one of the mine’s bust cycles, the McGill plant closed. Meanwhile, the mine needed to send the ore somewhere. The smelters still operating in the region were overloaded, and the price of copper had grown so high through demand for the metal in China that they had the idea to send the raw ore overseas, since that’s where it would end up anyway.

My first trip to China was very difficult, and there were many problems with access. It was freezing cold. I heard it called the Siberian winter. But the first trip taught me how to go back a second time and shoot what I hadn’t been able to get the first time around.

I’d been thinking about animation in relation to exhaustion—how animated still images could suggest an attenuation of time or convey a sense of exhaustion through a manually adjusted frame rate. I was reading a Robert Smithson essay in which he discussed mines as exhausted monuments, and that led me to think about using animation to describe this massive pit in the long process of being literally exhausted. As the piece grew, it seemed too long to construct only from photographs—I didn’t really know how or whether that would work.

Lucy Raven’s Trailer for China Town, 2010.

TA: I must confess that for the first couple of minutes I thought this was going to be a really boring movie.

LR: Well, even I was a little worried about that, and I wondered while I was making it if there was going to be any sort of dramatic climax, especially since I was using exclusively ambient sound recorded on location. But then it turned out that the music played at the Three Gorges Dam Museum in Chongqing was so grand and triumphant, and it coincided with the point in the movie where the refining process has finally been completed and power is being generated to run along copper wire and electrify China’s big cities. Similarly, the music played during the light show at the Beijing Urban Planning Museum at the end of the piece is the theme song from Jurassic Park, which also makes that scene more cinematic than it would have been otherwise.

But I hadn’t even known about China when I began filming—I actually started the project about a different copper mine, in Utah, that smelted its ore next door, twenty-five miles from the mine.

TA: You mean Bingham Canyon?

LR: Have you been out there?

TA: Yeah—actually, when I was a child, I was driving across the country with my parents and went to Bingham. The town itself made a bigger impression on me than the mine. It seemed so bizarre the way it was laid out: It’s just one long street, right?

LR: Yes—and now the town of Bingham is totally gone. It’s been excavated, basically.

TA: Mined?

LR: Yeah, subsumed by the pit. The research I’d done at Bingham Canyon turned into an online piece called Daybreak [2009], about a massive New Urbanist community built atop that mine’s old waste pile. It’s still being built, but the entire place is like a ghost town of the future, surrounded by all the other mining towns that have gone bust because of the collapse of metals prices. I produced a kind of illustrated essay with written text, slide shows, and audio I recorded in the community’s Information Pavilion.

There are so many ways to think about a film essay, and for me, your Los Angeles Plays Itself [2003] has been extremely important—the encyclopedic scope of films you include and discuss and edit together so precisely. Red Hollywood [1995], too, is built from an incredible repurposing of Hollywood film clips, and in both movies, the voice-over—your writing—is able to transform the way we look at even the most familiar or otherwise banal scenes. How does a project like that begin? I mean, you describe your relationship to Los Angeles and the movie industry in the beginning of Los Angeles Plays Itself, but what about Red Hollywood?

TA: The real Hollywood story: I guess it’s something that goes back to my youth. I grew up in West Los Angeles, in Brentwood, and so I knew people’s parents from the movie business. I was somehow aware of the blacklist. All that time, nobody talked about it. It was an open secret. It was subterranean, something everybody knew about and nobody talked about, like sex.

I’ve always been perplexed by the idea that somehow it didn’t make any difference. That is, it didn’t make any difference in the movies that were made. That hundreds of people were removed from the motion-picture industry but somehow it hadn’t really affected the industry, the content of movies, or the quality of movies.

Thom Andersen and Noël Burch, Red Hollywood, 1995, still from a black-and-white and color Beta SP video, 118 minutes.

LR: Odd that nothing of anyone’s political leanings should have made their way into the films?

TA: Yeah. I mean it’s taking to an extreme point the idea that movies are just an industrial product, which has a certain truth, but obviously they are made by human beings—individual writers, actors, directors—and not simply by an industry, you know? There is a certain ideological diversity in Hollywood movies, which you can literally see.

LR: How did you find the films that ended up in Red Hollywood? Some of them seem pretty obscure.

TA: I had written about the blacklist, but I only knew the most famous films. At Ohio State one of my colleagues was the film theorist Noël Burch. He became interested in this idea, and we decided to make a movie about it. Noël’s great intellectual virtue is his refusal to take anything on authority, to accept any received wisdom, no matter how obvious. So he insisted we start from zero and look at every movie made by a victim of the blacklist.

In 1986 and ’87, we began trying to look at as much as we could, starting with what was available on VHS tape, which by that time was fairly extensive, as well as films at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. We planned to make a real film from the best film sources.

LR: As opposed to just dubbing video and not actually having permission?

TA: Yeah. In the end, though, our grant application to the NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] was rejected. Maybe in the ’70s it might have been accepted, but of course we were already in the era of Reagan and that poor clown William Bennett.

So, in the summer of 1994, we decided to do an amateur version first. We had seen Mark Rappaport do it with Rock Hudson’s Home Movies [1992].

LR: Was it able to be shown—did you release it in theaters or were you just circulating it via VHS?

TA: It never really got shown much at all. Film festivals, mostly. It met a lot of resistance for reasons that are basically political. Like every supposedly aesthetic criticism. As we say in the movie, we’ve known about class injustice for so long that we’ve forgotten it. It just sounds too corny to talk about it.

A symptom of that is that no politician talks about the working class anymore. Obama defends the middle class. The Republicans defend the middle class. The working class no longer exists in the United States. When you talk about the working class as we do, people don’t know what you are talking about.

LR: That’s right. There’s no shared vocabulary right now—it just doesn’t seem to be part of the discussion. Though in that sense your movie seems especially relevant.

TA: The blacklist had a profound effect on Hollywood movies as a whole. Beginning in the mid-’50s the movies just got old and senile. People who made movies were getting older, and the movies showed it.

LR: One thing I was thinking about in watching Red Hollywood was what sort of work is filmable right now, and what’s not. Nearly all the documentaries screened at this year’s Flaherty Film Seminar, which I just returned from, showed manual labor—blue-collar, working-class work. It came up in discussion that perhaps what’s filmable in our current moment is a certain sort of hard labor, but what’s less accessible to filmmakers are the power structures or corporations that control the operation from behind closed doors.

I was wondering what you thought about that—the films you excerpted for Red Hollywood are all fictional narratives where any power dynamic could have been scripted and shot, but behind the camera, as a result of the politics, or the perceived politics, of the filmmakers, they were totally removed from view.

TA: I could give you a very long answer to that question. It would take about three hours. It would probably drive the Flaherty Seminar people nuts. But you had to get permission from the bosses to film work, right? Wasn’t that your experience when you made China Town?

LR: Yes, I had to get permission from the bosses to even get in the door to ask permission of the workers. But I didn’t film the bosses themselves—I suppose I didn’t try to.

TA: Harun Farocki made a film about corporate meetings, guys trying to find the capital for a startup company [Nicht ohne Risiko (Nothing Ventured, 2004)]. I think a lot of people in those positions would be flattered if someone wanted to film them at work.

It’s obviously a question in your film, right? How you film work, and how to show the cycle of production from extracting a raw material to turning that into an industrial product and then how that product gets used to build something.

LR: Yes, exactly. A simple narrative conceit, following the material as it changed form from raw ore to a valuable commodity—which was transported around the world along the way—ended up describing a complex and disjunctive system where many different types of work are needed.

Lucy Raven, China Town, 2009, still from a photographic animation, 51 minutes 30 seconds.

TA: I like the casino section. It was to suggest that customers in the casino, gamblers, were also involved in a form of labor, right?

LR: Definitely.

TA: It just seemed the same as the industrial workers, playing slots as a kind of machine-tending process.

LR: Yes. And in many cases those customers are actually the miners themselves. There aren’t that many primary industrial processes still happening in the US, but there are many secondary service-sector economies like gambling, especially in that area of Nevada, including a maximum-security prison.

TA: So maybe the closest forerunner of your movie is One-Sixth of the World by Dziga Vertov [1926], for which he traveled all over the Soviet Union. It’s the only film I can think of that’s as ambitious as your film in that respect.

The depiction of work in Hollywood movies is an interesting subject. I’ve always believed that Hollywood movies could be understood pretty well by reading [Thorstein] Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. They express the values of the leisure class. So they denigrate what Veblen calls “industry,” the tedious productive work that transforms something inert into something useful, the work that makes possible whatever prosperity we have today. They don’t even know how to represent this work—with the exception of films by extreme right-wing directors like King Vidor.

Thom Anderson, Los Angeles Plays Itself, 2003. (Excerpt.)

LR: It’s funny because, meanwhile, film productions themselves employ so many people. You make this point in Los Angeles Plays Itself in the section on films about Hollywood filmmaking.

Your new film, Get Out of the Car [2010], shows a very different version of Los Angeles. The empty lots and billboards are like sets that have been left behind long after everyone’s done filming. Is that something you were thinking about?

TA: The movie that became Get Out of the Car, like your movie, and like Los Angeles Plays Itself, also started small. It was going to be an eight-minute movie of just billboards. I thought of it as a project that was a bit perverse because it’s not exactly an original subject. So it started out as this movie I’m going to make just for fun and nobody is going to like it but I don’t care. When we started shooting, it was kind of a lark, you know, just go out one day and shoot for a few hours. There are also some outtakes from Los Angeles Plays Itself in the film.

LR: I was wondering about that. Because there’s also that scene in Los Angeles Plays Itself—I wrote it down—where you said, “The images of things that aren’t there anymore mean a lot to those of us who live in LA and practically nothing to anyone else, except perhaps when they represent things that have disappeared from urban centers everywhere.”

TA: Yeah. That seems to be a particular obsession of people in Los Angeles. The local television station KCET once made a program called Things That Aren’t Here Anymore, and it was so popular that they made a sequel, More Things That Aren’t Here Anymore. And then they made Things That Aren’t Here Anymore 3. And of course there’s some of that spirit in Get Out of the Car.

LR: Get Out of the Car also feels in some ways like a sequel to your rock ’n’ roll film called – – – – – – – – – [1966–67]. There are a huge number of location shots of music clubs in that film, mainly of places that now aren’t there anymore. Get Out of the Car includes a number of abandoned lots where clubs used to be, which in the film are marked by descriptive historical markers. You made those, right?

TA: Yeah, I made the signs.

LR: Those are great. When I saw the first one I wondered, would someone have put that sign there? They look really official—the fonts and the colors.

TA: Well, they’re inspired by these advertising signs you see around town, which are often used for concerts, that are just text. They’re usually black text on some kind of colored paper.

LR: Like the Al Ruppersberg pieces?

TA: Exactly—because the signs are made by a company called the Colby Poster Printing Company, which was the company Al Ruppersberg used to make his signs. I always liked those signs. So I had them made by Colby Poster Printing, too.

I was thinking about the sound track for the movie. And I thought that just pure ambient sound in the sense of street noise would be boring. When you record that kind of sound in Los Angeles there are really only two kinds—there’s one with traffic and one without traffic. That led me to study the history of music in Los Angeles. The song “Get Out of the Car” itself is by Richard Berry, who’s most famous for “Louie Louie” in ’57. And then I thought about places that were important in that history. The first one was the El Monte Legion Stadium. I guess that’s when I got the idea of actually memorializing these places. And how do you do that since there isn’t any physical trace of these places left? That’s when I had the idea of making these unofficial historical markers.

In fact, I was touched by the end of China Town because it elicited some of the same issues about memory and history. There was a shot of the Three Gorges Dam that reminded me of when I was a kid going to visit the Boulder Dam or the Hoover Dam or whatever they call it now. They had tours. You can also see it in that great Edmond O’Brien movie 711 Ocean Drive [1950]. I don’t remember it all that well but it was really impressive, the combination of legacies of technology and work. I don’t know if you’ve ever gone.

Lucy Raven, China Town, 2009, still from a photographic animation, 51 minutes 30 seconds.

LR: Yeah, the Hoover and the Bonneville Dam up in the Columbia River Gorge. Also the Grand Coulee, which apparently the Three Gorges Dam was modeled after.

TA: Of course when you watch the film, you think about how inconceivable these vastly scaled projects would be in the US now.

LR: China is going through a level of expansion and industrialization analogous to what we went through in the ’30s—the ore travels right past several WPA-era dams in the Columbia River Gorge on its way to the port to be shipped out to China.

TA: Normally we think that raw materials in the third world are shipped off to an industrialized nation to be processed and then turned into products that are shipped back into the country where the raw materials come from.

LR: Yes—but there are fewer and fewer processing plants in the US. A copper-wire plant I visited in Carrollton, Georgia, as part of my research is one of the only ones still operating here. It’s called Southwire. A manager there was the only other American I’d met who’d been to the smelter where I filmed in Tongling. And he said they got some of their copper from that smelter, some from Chile and other places—but very little from the US.

At one of the screenings of China Town in Ely, Nevada, the town just next to the mine, a campaigning mayoral candidate showed up and said he’d heard the movie was about shipping ore from that area to China, and asked how many years ago that happened. Somehow he didn’t know that that’s where rock from the mine, which employs a large sector of the town’s residents, is now going. The screening was in a railroad museum that has exhibits about old-time mining but no information at all about the current operation.

Everyone knows the American economy is a disaster, but how do you show what’s not there anymore? You do it through the vacant lots and the signs in Get Out of the Car, but also through the music and the short, spoken asides. It’s a different approach.

TA: Most of the comments are my voice; they’re just things that I thought of when we were there, and the voice-over was all recorded on location.

LR: It has a really different effect than the recorded voice-over in something like Red Hollywood or Los Angeles Plays Itself.

TA: Yeah, because it’s fitted into dialogue and it’s just dumb stuff—well, ridiculous. With maybe one premeditated exception, which was the razor wire on the cemetery wall in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, as it’s now known. That’s a quotation from Walter Benjamin taken out of context: “Even the dead will not be safe.” It’s from his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”

LR: Well, zombies. You can never be too careful. It’s Hollywood.

TA: You seem to use a similarly dissociated relationship between image and audio.

LR: There’s something really interesting to me about non-sync sound. I couldn’t use sync sound for China Town because I shot it with a still camera that doesn’t record sound, but I like how the noise can crack apart the image from the space of wherever the sound is coming from. Maybe that’s also what makes Get Out of the Car rhyme nicely with your rock ’n’ roll film, because in both films the sound is unhinged from the image but in totally different ways. The rock film is much more structural.

TA: Yeah, in the new movie, there’s a relation between the image and the sound, but the sound is all offscreen. In a way it suggests the extended space of the shot.

LR: I used to coedit, with Rebecca Gates, an audio magazine called The Relay Project where the premise was actually quite similar. Since the disc was audio only, the sound you heard was, in a way, all “offscreen”—you could listen to it while walking, driving, sitting at home—but we chose each track to conjure a very particular space and mood.

It’s related to that question of filming vacancy—how you transmit or broadcast a mood. I was working with this notion recently in a five-part program I made for Manhattan public access.

TA: Tony Conrad did some great public-access programs.

LR: Actually, I asked Tony if I could use a recording of his I love from Outside the Dream Syndicate as the sound track for this recent series, which was called This Is a Test [2009]. The program was a riff on the thirty-second tests of the Emergency Broadcast System, which emit a dissonant tone and either color bars or a still slide. This was an attenuation of that idea—a low-level sense of something going wrong—over thirty minutes.

That sort of broadcast alert system doesn’t really work in an era of hundreds of cablecast channels, none of them live. I’m interested in public access because it still operates like TV used to—whatever is on is on. In fact, I wanted China Town to play on TV in the middle of the night. That’s strangely how I always thought it might best be viewed.