Although Milwaukee will eternally be known for beer, cheese hats, and the infamous Laverne and Shirley, the unique city is also home to a thriving and supportive art scene. The film and video community in Milwaukee has enjoyed an increasingly active past couple of years. Legend has it there was a hot film scene here in the eighties, and as the cyclical nature of history can attest, a resurgence of strong, active, and respected work is emerging from the present community. Besides people supporting and inspiring each other, a large factor is that people who once came to attend University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Film School chose to stay and make this their home.
Why Milwaukee? This city is hot. It’s a gem in the rough, big enough to be a city, small enough to feel like a town. The architecture is a convergence of Old World ethnic distinctions. The spring/summer/fall weather is beautiful. The quality of life is high for its humble surroundings. And people can afford to travel for months at a time. The creative community has been tossed back and forth as a burgeoning “scene,” for better or worse, most recently written up in Art in America. And although there are many great people and organizations comprising various circles of friends, the following three individuals are excellent ambassadors of the eclectic film/video community. Not only do they function as individual artists and are all in cool bands, but they run important establishments in and for the local community. They act locally, yet their reach is wide.
Hailing from Long Island, New York, experimental filmmaker/artist/musician Stephanie Barber has been living and working in Milwaukee for seven years. I spoke with Stephanie at a bustling coffee shop on Milwaukee’s flourishing east side as she just got off her East Coast tour with her latest rap/performance piece Ms. Money Money.
Barber, who has been making films for fifteen years, now has a collection of over twenty films to her credit. Best known for her titles Metronome, Letters, Notes, and Flower, the Boy, the Librarian, she boasts one-person shows at MoMA, San Francisco Cinemateque at the Yerba Buena Center, and Chicago Filmmakers. She has garnered success and critical acclaim at festivals such as the New York International Film Festival, Oberhausen International Film Fest, and Paris Cinemateque, among others.
“My work could be described as literary, poetic, formally specific,” says the highly productive Barber. Lauded film critic Henry Trial regards her work as “almost always involved in the emotionality of spaces.” Her latest film City at Heart just premiered at the Chicago Underground Film Festival.
When she’s not exploring filmic and musical boundaries, Barber runs and curates the Bamboo Theater. With the special blessing and spirit of a former Chinese restaurant, the Bamboo Theater showcases the work of visiting experimental filmmakers lucky enough to find themselves in Milwaukee. The list of recent artists reads like a who’s who: Martin Arnold, Miranda July, Kirsten Stoltmann, Jim Trainor, Selina Trepp, and San Francisco graffiti artist Chuck Quarino. The theater is also the locale for a monthly showcase called Soup & Cinema (run with Xavier Leplae of Riverwest Film and Video). Bring some soup, show your work—it’s a public forum for local film and videomakers—an “open-screen night,” if you will—the first Tuesday of every month. “[Bamboo Theater] is an essential exhibition space for film and videomakers void of any commercialism. It is entirely focused on the art form and the intimacy of sharing that with your peers,” Barber explains.
Barber also started, and continues to run, the Make-A-Film-in-Twelve-Hours contest, facilitated and supported by the UW-Milwaukee Film Department. Contestants form groups and are given a theme at the start of the day. They then have twelve hours to make the film (using the school’s black-and-white reversal processing and facilities), screening at night in front of all the contestants and a panel of judges. Cash prizes go to the top three films.
For more information, contact Stephanie Barber, c/o Bamboo Theater, 832 E. Locust, Milwaukee, WI 53212.
Belgian-born, French-speaking filmmaker/artist/musician Xavier “Xav” Leplae finds his roots in Milwaukee and has been active in the community ever since he can remember. He has operated various storefront hangouts for years, the latest answering the need for a film supplies store.
Xavier Leplae: I noticed back in the eighties that all my film school peers were graduating and, at best, getting sucked straight into the commercial film and advertisement world. Once the support system of the film department disappeared, people could no longer afford to pursue film and video as a pure art form. So when the school in Milwaukee closed its film co-op in 1998, I gave it a try.
The store is a mixture of places. It is partly a business where I sell film supplies and used equipment, like a small-scale version of SMS in Chicago or Rafik’s in New York. But I also rent videos and the store is actually a country shack built inside the store, if that makes any sense. Beyond the sales counter, we have a kitchen-like hangout area, and in the basement, a band room where many bands practice. Neapolitan Records produces its CD’s and 45’s, and we have a film and video editing space. The building itself (coined locally as “Pumpkin World”) is connected through hallways to other people’s apartments too.
Pumpkin World is nice because we can all meet in this one open space but also have privacy in our separate apartments and homes. Actually it’s a lot like a tiny school minus the classes; just the people, spaces, and some supplies and equipment.
The store allows people in the neighborhood access to stuff they otherwise wouldn’t be able to use. We rent out video and film cameras, we sell all necessary supplies to make a project, we have an editing room, and we maintain a creative and interesting gallery/storefront that adds decorative value to our neighborhood. Kids walking by and peering into the window or looking through videotapes can count on a positive and hopefully inspiring experience for them—a creative alternative to strip malls.
This place, in addition to other community establishments like Darling Hall, Bluemark and the Bamboo Theater, are all part of a unique convergence of good social chemistry. I’ve never understood why that doesn’t happen elsewhere all the time. It really should. Part of it is allowing yourself to let go of fear of what will happen if you open your door to everyone.
Sarah Price: Are you making a living from this, or do you have to supplement?
XL: I’ve been doing this for about four years now, and I haven’t really had any other job.
SP: Do you have advice for someone wanting to start a place like this in their own community?
XL: I would say just copy me and everything will go fine. Call me and I’ll tell you what to do. Xavier Laplae’s number is (414) A-OK-VIDEO, that’s (414) 265-8433.
Hailing from the greater St. Paul-Minneapolis area, videomaker-artist-musician Steve Wetzel has lived and worked in Milwaukee for four years. But, he says, “Milwaukee has been in me since I was a little boy. I used to hear stories about how dirty Milwaukee was, how there was so much pollution, and how restaurants close before 10:30 pm.” At this point, only the restaurant part remains true.
SP: How long have you been making films and videos? What type of work do you generally make?
Steve Wetzel: For five years now I have been producing little videos, the bulk of them oriented toward a simple, single-shot performance. Some of my video work is geared toward installation—like, say, with Art Pro Team, a collaborative curatorial project in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was invited to build a piece in a storefront in downtown Ann Arbor—while others have a more traditional aim, like Teaspoon Communications, an ongoing public access TV show that I produce with the help of many others, including the institutional support of Teaspoon.
SP: What is Teaspoon Communications; what is the Tsp mission?
SW: Teaspoon Communications was initially charged with the responsibility of criticizing official media representations of all events linked to the attacks on the East Coast last September. The original founders of Teaspoon were writer Jennifer Geigel, filmmaker Jennifer Montgomery, Xavier LePlae, and myself. Teaspoon’s first broadcast was mired in what is now called the “copyright quandary.” The program was shelved due to some copyright infringements, and it wasn’t cleared to broadcast until a month or more after its completion. By this time, interest by the other founding members had waned; everyone had other projects in the works. Fortunately, I had committed Teaspoon to a year-long series at MATA Community Media [the Milwaukee Access Telecom-munications Authority public access channels], so I was kind of fortuitously stuck by a legally binding contract to produce twelve episodes of Teaspoon Communications.
Now the show has opened up a bit, dealing with a whole range of material and subject, including excerpts from essays by Karl Popper; a patriotic puppet painter; interviews with filmmakers, educators, and citizens of Panama with an insight on the Panamanian invasion (remember that?); an advice column that just whips the pants off any other advice column; a segment on the advances and inspiration of our national anthem; and, you know, tons of stuff. I have to fill twenty-eight minutes every month. Several local artists help with the show, some produce segments for it: Nick Frank’s National Anthem Monthly; Jinnene Ross’ advice column, Henny Forest; Christine Khalafian’s film on the naturalization process; and Paul Druecke’s monthly installment of 2381B N. Bremen St., a meditation on an interior space. It’s all pretty exciting; pretty invigorating and good, at least from the standpoint of working with other people. The show itself is fine too. Sure, there are some stinkers, but, I don’t know, overall I think it works just fine.
SP: Can you explain a bit more about MATA Community Media and how it functions in and for the community?
SW: MCM is this amazing public resource in the city of Milwaukee. It’s a place where people, your uncle and my neighbor, can come and get trained on television production equipment for the purpose of producing grassroots, idiosyncratic TV. Anyone living in the city limits of Milwaukee can walk through the doors of MCM, pay an incredibly small yearly fee (small in relation to the equipment one gets access to, equipment that one can take home and use), and begin making a TV program about whatever he or she wants. I mean, that’s serious stuff. Not enough people know about MCM. Not enough people know about public access cable TV. Every municipality has public access. Some don’t have equipment, some do. MCM does. I’ll tell you what, making a TV show sure beats the hell out of complaining about how awful TV is.
What’s really amazing is that public access didn’t exist until, I think, 1985, when cable took off. I don’t get how a self-proclaimed free and open society didn’t have a place where people could come and weigh in on whatever subject they felt was relevant until 1985. This institution now exists, but it takes more people getting involved for it to have any real staying power. Time Warner has been licking its chops in anticipation of ousting MCM. I have a lot more to say about this, but I think I’ve blown enough wind here.
SP: Any last thoughts?
SW: Cable public access is one of the last relatively open public spaces. It’s sort of abstract in that it exists between a private television in a home and the public access studio. But, nonetheless, it is one of the last public spaces where public dialogue and expression can happen. Though this is changing a bit, and it is tenuous. Public access stations rely on funding from local cable providers and the goodwill of a city council, and in some cases underwriting and grants. The point is, I think, that public access TV—and other institutions like a free press, etc.—is crucial if we’re to talk at all about a relatively free and open society without busting our guts laughing.
Teaspoon Communications airs on:
MATA Community Media (Milwaukee), CH 96 and CH 14 on Tuesday at 7 p.m., and Saturday at 5 p.m.
CTV (Eau Claire, WI), CH 11
Minneapolis Telecommunications Network (MTN), CH 17, Wednesday nights at 10 p.m.
Manhattan Neighborhood Network (MNN), CH 34, the first Wednesday of every month (Oct 2, Nov 6, Dec 4 etc.) at 1:30 p.m.
For more info, contact Steve Wetzel at (414) 342-4000 x317.