“What can you do to subvert the genre of film?”
This was the key question posed to Art Ready students by mentors Eve Sussman (aka Rufus Corporation) and Simon Lee, during our first Art Ready visit of the new year. The possibilities for the medium of film-making have clearly changed dramatically over the past few decades, notably with the accessibility and popularity of digital video over analog film. Differences between genres of films can also become blurred, e.g. documentary vs fiction or nonfiction, narrative vs non-narrative. Artists working with video and film can play an important role in continually pushing such technical and conceptual boundaries—as demonstrated by Eve and Simon’s Art Ready presentation.
A married couple but with two separate artistic practices, the two choose to mentor as a team because of their different travel schedules that may take one of them out of the country for weeks at a time for an art project or residency. Each occupies a live-work studio on two different floors of a converted loft building overlooking the east River from the industrial Kent Avenue in Williamsburg. Students were inspired right away by the quirky physical enticements of these genuinely creative art laboratories, snapping photos of the majestic panoramic sunset framed by Eve’s huge glass windows; a working piano; series of photographs lining the walls, and the indoor film- screening room in Simon’s studio space, complete with a curtain and stage seats.
The visit was divided into equal-length presentations of the two artists’ work, followed by a Q&A in Simon’s screening room. Eve first showed clips from her new video project-in-progress, made with footage shot in post-soviet Kazakhstan, with futuristic and environmental undertones. Yet unlike a traditional video with a set beginning, middle, and end, this one “continually edits itself live as you watch it,” explained Eve, “based on algorithms or sets of rules.” She gestured to a smaller computer screen in the background, displaying codes that determine the direction of the movie based on which of several different voice-overs is playing. Eve compared this project to the internet radio service Pandora, which, instead of following a set playlist, selects which song to play next based on user feedback. In a gallery setting, Eve displays both the film itself and the computer screen that reveals the “rules” behind it, so that the understanding of the process becomes an integral part of the viewing experience.
The rest of the screenings occurred in Simon’s mini-theater one floor up, and he appropriately introduced the space by telling students that should they choose to work with him and Eve as mentors, they can help with a theater production the two are co-producing. He recommended the mentorship to “anyone with theatrical leanings. “
Among several photo/video pieces Simon showed were examples of his “Bus Obscura” project, in which he turned an ordinary bus into “a multiple aperture camera obscura using a rear projection technique that allows the individual images to flow into one another.” He explained how a camera obscura is basically a dark room in which the image outside the room gets projected inside through a single hole and appears upside down—“This basic technology of the camera was available for years before actual cameras were invented.” On the bus, to achieve a “cinema obscura” effect of moving images on the bus’s interior, he had to first black out the bus and make tiny “pinholes” where light can come through, and then provide a “collection screen” for the images in the window.Eve and Simon’s mentees will be able to make their own pinhole cameras out of cardboard if they are interested in doing their own experiments with this technology. They will be able to explore the possibilities of different types of video cameras—Simon explained how in digital video cameras, data for pictures is all stored as electronic information, vs. reels of physical film that must be manually developed with chemicals, cut and pieced together. Mentees can practice the art of using storyboarding to plan out an analog film, or edit their own digital videos and photos using final cut pro and photoshop.
Eve and Simon’s work, like that of most artist mentors, is also influenced by a solid background in more “traditional” media and in the artistic traditions of the past; Simon has worked previously as a painter, sculptor, and photographer, which enables his comfort with large-scale physical construction and the science behind how a camera works (critical in making a work like the Bus Obscura).
The influence of painting, performance, and art history is clear in Eve’s work; the last work sample we viewed was her elaborate re-staging of a famous Velasquez painting in video, with actors dressed in detailed replicas of each costume.
During the Q&A period, students asked how long it takes to make a film, and Simon answered, “anywhere from one day to 10 years. Last year’s mentees collaboratively made a 3-minute film. To make something even this short that you are actually really happy with actually takes a lot of work.”
Eve Sussman and Simon Lee have dedicated their lives to both understanding and expanding the genres of photo and film, and we as members of Art Ready are fortunate enough to be invited along—maybe not to build an entire bus obscura–but definitely for an equally interesting ride.