PRINT February 2013


Jennifer West’s One Mile Film

Jennifer West, One Mile Film . . . , 2012, 35 mm transferred to HD video, color, silent, 58 minutes 40 seconds. For full title of work, see page 268.

THIS PAST OCTOBER 17, one of the first cold nights of fall, Los Angeles artist Jennifer West screened One Mile Film . . . , 2012, a work shot, altered, and, not least, projected on the High Line in New York. (It was commissioned by High Line Art.) Underneath the arch of the Standard Hotel, a group of underdressed viewers, shivering and stamping, gathered to watch the film’s layered, jittery views of the park and the neighborhood, sequences of varying tone and saturation showing two young parkour performers doing handstands, flips, and balancing tricks on the rails of the park’s undeveloped section, while scribbles, political messages, and hearts, written on and scratched into the film, flew by.

Production on One Mile Film began last June, when West shot more than a mile’s worth of footage on 35-mm film on and around the High Line. She spent about two days filming the area: the skyline, the construction site for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s expansion, and a billboard created by Maurizio Cattelan. At the end of the second day, she reexposed the film, shooting the parkour artists in the rail-yards section of the High Line, between Thirtieth and Thirty-Fourth Streets, a part of the tracks yet to be converted into manicured park.

In September, West returned to the High Line with a full mile’s worth of processed filmstrip, which she taped down along the length of the structure, from Gansevoort Street to Thirty-Fourth Street—down steps, through the fountain, around the railway’s side rails, up walls and over doorways, over grates and concrete—and let people to walk on it, write on it, and scratch it with sandpaper. A school group danced on the filmstrip; strollers rolled over it. This daylong event, titled One Mile Parkour Film Performance, concluded with three parkour artists performing under the Standard’s arch, doing flips over and pulling apart a tangled strip of the film. When the park closed, West and her assistants rolled up the length of celluloid and carried it away.

Filmed over the course of a couple of days, altered during another, screened on a single night, in and about a place that was first a freight-rail line and then a colossal wreck and is now a popular park, in a neighborhood gone from heavy industry and slaughterhouses to boutiques and art galleries: One Mile Film was seemingly made to advertise the city’s energy and resourcefulness, to publicize an attraction beloved by residents and tourists alike. Yet it was not so simple or direct. The work didn’t cozy up to the High Line but rather subjected it to a shifting frame in which questions about nostalgia, about progress, about the shaping of people by the city and vice versa, could be asked.

Like much of West’s work, the film abets such an investigation by virtue of its aesthetics. West’s cameraless techniques—in past projects she has soaked, marked, and scratched her film with lipstick, sharks’ teeth, salt water, K-Y Jelly, and carrot juice—produce images evocative of 1960s and ’70s experimental filmmaking, resembling, specifically, the work of Stan Brakhage. In this case, the film was so distressed that, after splicing together the whole six thousand feet (frantically, in her New York hotel room before her flight back to Los Angeles), she had to repair damaged sprocket holes and discard parts that were too mangled before delivering it to a Hollywood lab, no doubt used to seeing film in much better repair, to make a print of it. Via this process, One Mile Film registers New York City in the cast of an earlier, grimier, distinctly industrial era, one that contrasts with crisp, digital images of post-Giuliani renewal epitomized by the High Line. The writing and incisions on the film’s surface create a kind of graffiti; the palette of washed-out colors feels mellowed, softened, like old home movies that have begun to disintegrate in their tins.

West and her parkour artists are partly performing an act of reclamation. As famously depicted in Joel Sternfeld’s photographs from 2000 and 2001, the High Line, before its reinvention, was a kind of secret elevated wilderness; it was visited only and illicitly by urban explorers, who encountered tracks overgrown with wildflowers, fruit trees, and grasses. Parkour practitioners, who call themselves traceurs, evoke these intrepid adventurers, bringing to mind the ideal of man’s traceless passage through nature. Yet here, of course, they mark West’s film, as do the park’s well-heeled visitors. One Mile Film invites us to consider the site through layers of time, through a contemporary cityscape seen through indexical trace, through footage of construction that has already progressed since its filming, through time running backward and forward as the film’s images run forward and backward and upside down.

Emily Hall is a regular contributor to Artforum.