The View from the Whitney

Chrissie Iles is the curator of film and video at the Whitney Museum of American Art and has been curating for twenty-three years. Before joining the Whitney in 1997, she was head of exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford. Her Whitney exhibit, Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art 1964-1977, is currently touring Europe.

The Independent: What trends do you see emerging in experimental film and video?
Iles: I think that there’s an unprecedented hybridization of different forms, and the emergence of “the digital” has produced both a lot of work dealing with the digital and a strong reaction against it, towards the material, which is no longer to be taken for granted. People hang onto the term “film” a little bit like they hung onto the term “sculpture” in the seventies when they were making anything but sculpture. “Video” has almost become a pejorative term. People like to say they’re making a digital film, which is interesting because it’s actually got nothing to do with film. There are more films on video being shown in galleries than ever before, single-screen films with a beginning, middle, and end, which is very interesting, and not always very satisfactory, and it’s an ongoing and very complicated debate as to why that’s happening . . .

The Independent: . . . why people are making narrative films?
Iles: Why they want to put them in a gallery.

The Independent: . . . with viewers walking in the middle . . .
Iles: If you’re making a narrative film, why don’t you want it to be screened in a theater where people will sit through the beginning, middle, and end, as opposed to a gallery, where people walk in, look at it for five minutes, and then walk out? They haven’t seen the piece, but it doesn’t seem to matter. I was struck by how few people actually put on the headphones.

The Independent: At the Video Acts exhibit at P.S. 1 I was struck by how few people actually put on the headphones.
Iles: People never put on the headphones. If you put on headphones, you’ve cut out your main means of determining whether someone’s coming up behind you. People will only put on headphones if they’re at home, in an airplane, or if they’re out and about on the street and can move quickly. People, when they enter a gallery space, don’t like to be restricted in any way. That’s why if you put lots of seats in a gallery space you won’t get anyone to sit down, but if you put lots of benches in you will, and that’s a very strange thing. People don’t pay enough attention to the psychology of the viewer. I mean, I wouldn’t put headphones on in a public space. And they never work.

The Independent: So what do filmmakers gain by showing their films in galleries?
Iles: I think that the issue is one of exposure. One of the reasons that films are being put into the galleries is because people don’t feel that their films will get any attention otherwise. People won’t go and see an experimental film at seven o’clock on a Thursday, but they will if they’re wandering through Chelsea. In Documenta [the massive contemporary art exhibit held in Kessel, Germany every five years] there were a number of single-screen films shown in the gallery. They were also shown in the film program, but all those people in the film program who didn’t have a space in the gallery were not seen by the art world—no one knew Jonas Mekas was in Documenta because his work was only in the film program. But the art world was discovering people like Ulrike Ottinger because she had an eight-hour film in the gallery. The fact that people only saw ten minutes or half an hour of it was offset by the fact that many more thousands of people now know that she exists. So I think that the shifting of film into the gallery space is directly related to the elbowing out of film that’s not Sundance and not Hollywood by an increasingly commercialized conglomerate of cinema spaces where you get the same thing showing in every cinema.

The Independent: What are some films that you think are showing a new direction?
Iles: There are some pieces that I think are very interesting at the moment. One is the Sharon Lockhart film [NØ, which recently showed] at Barbara Gladstone. Sharon was taught by Morgan Fischer and is very influenced by structural film of the seventies and has understood the conceptual premises behind it very well. So this film has a very clear structure to it. It’s a film that requires that you see it from the beginning to the end. In installation, I thought that many of the pieces in Documenta were very important. One that comes to mind is by Craigie Horsfield. It’s a video installation on four screens and it’s eight hours long. It’s called The El Hierro Conversation. El Hierro is the westernmost Canary Island. He worked with the people who live on the island. It’s almost like an archive of their life. The way he has filmed it is absolutely stunning. At one point the camera spends twenty minutes just on the hands of a woman making cheese, very close-up, and you see the cheese emerging out of this very milky surface. These are films that ask us to think about a different way of experiencing time. In Craigie’s installation there are benches that people can actually lie down on. It’s a really meditative piece, and it requires you spending a lot of time.

The Independent: And outside the galleries?
Iles: There’s a young filmmaker called Brian Frye who’s made a neat film where he went into one of those reenactments of a Civil War battle. He filmed people as they were in battle, and then standing around having a fag and then going back into battle. So you see the filmmaker documenting the artificiality of the battle being fought. That’s a lovely little experimental film.

The Independent: How about video?
Iles: Peggy Ahwesh has made a very interesting tape— it’s called The She Puppet. Christian Marclay has made a multiple-screen video installation which takes slivers from Hollywood films and bursts of musical activity. And sampling is something I find very overdone and dull.

The Independent: But he was doing it before anyone else.
Iles: Exactly, and he transferred it from sound to video. It’s like an orchestration of all these musical moments. That’s all digitally done, and it’s really superb, I think.

The Independent: Aside from sampling, what are some things that you think are overdone, or just irk you?
Iles: One of the things that irks me is real-time cameras documenting a street corner, and surveillance—it’s been done for the last thirty years.

The Independent: Big Brother stuff?
Iles: Yeah, and just documenting a street in real time. It’s too easy to make a moving image or a photographic image now. Cameras have become so sophisticated and everyone has one. There’s a lot of very dull video and photography— there’s too much of it, I think. So you have to weed out things an awful lot, because there’s not much deep thinking that appears to be going on in a lot of cases.

The Independent: What else do you find interesting?
Iles: There is an interesting quasi-documentary strand to filmmaking going on now, by artists and filmmakers, where they’re playing around with what documentary is. Also, straight documentary is enjoying a lot of attention, which is very good, because documentary film is wonderful and it’s a neglected medium. There’s a lot of looking back to the seventies in a romanticized way on the part of artists, which can get overdone.

The Independent: How do you mean?
Iles: They’re using the word “conceptual” when their work is not particularly conceptual. Now “conceptual” is applied to almost anything, which means that nothing is conceptual, because conceptual art did have a fairly narrow definition, and if you extend it too much it becomes meaningless.

The Independent: What else?
Iles: There’s a great interest in the materiality of film itself, as celluloid. Both artists and filmmakers are deliberately focusing on the specific materials that produce a film and special projectors. They might be burying film for six months and exposing the surface of the film to different natural elements.

The Independent: These are all things that were being done in the sixties and seventies.
Iles: But they’re being done in a different way, in a way that I find interesting. They’re experimenting with projecting film in the space. Luis Recoder is doing some very interesting work, and Bruce McClure—I showed his work here at the 2002 biennial. It’s four projectors with colored gels, and he controls the timing and the way in which they interact. It’s almost like a moving Rothko painting. Filmmakers like Luis Recoder and Bruce McClure really explore the materiality of film. I think that’s partly in reaction to the digital, which is profoundly immaterial in a way that can be very unsatisfying.

The Independent: Have you seen artists that are working in digital dealing with that immateriality?
Iles: Not really. I think it sort of states itself in that there’s such an ability to morph one image into another. It’s a bit like the resurgence in drawing. I think people actually want to see that there’s a mark made that’s indisputable, something made with a hand. There’s a real desire for that in the face of the digital, where everything is mutable, and I think the internet has a lot to do with that. The lines between the commercial environment, the internet environment, and what artists and filmmakers are doing has become so fluid that it’s almost necessary to reinforce the differences.

The Independent: In terms of the intersection between art and commerce, we should at least mention Matthew Barney. A while back there was a discussion in The Village Voice in which some of the participating filmmakers— Ahwesh in particular—were expressing their resentment about the financial success of those films.
Iles: One of the failures of experimental filmmaking is that it never found a viable economic model for itself, so it gets very suspicious when people want to try and do that. Why would you show an experimental film of yours for the $20 rental fee and then complain that Matthew Barney’s got a $2 million dollar budget? Whose fault is that? You don’t have to show your films for $20. You can say these films are very precious, there are only two prints, and they’re $5,000 each. It’s easy. There’s no one stopping them going into the gallery saying, “Here’s a film and it’s an edition of four.” They have adopted a distribution model that restricts you to people with no money, universities, museums, nonprofits—who can’t afford to pay anything more than $20.

The Independent: So do you think this is a model that filmmakers should be adopting?
Iles: It’s their choice not to adopt it, so they’ll be in a poverty stricken distribution system, because you can’t eat on $20 a screening. I don’t want to be too negative about the experimental film crowd’s reaction to Matthew Barney, but I do think it’s very naive. Experimental filmmaking is not particularly experimental—Matthew Barney’s work is more experimental than much experimental filmmaking. You know, it’s an academy. In Frameworks, I see these exchanges where if someone does anything that touches remotely on video or on something commercial it’s absolutely out of the canon. It’s a genre, and if it’s going to restrict itself so completely, then it has to understand that it will have a very small audience.

The Independent: You’ve articulated two very separate worlds.
Iles: I never see filmmakers at openings for gallery shows, just like I never see the art world at Anthology Film Archives. Artists are very immersed in Hollywood film, the forties to seventies mainly. They have them all on video and they’re really knowledgeable about them. I went with some artists to see the Nicholas Ray films at MoMA and there were four hundred people in the audience. Artists are very influenced by that kind of filmmaking, more than Stan Brackage was. The art world doesn’t make abstract film any more than they might paint abstract canvases. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just different. Jonas Mekas crossed into the art world right from the very beginning—he’s in the next Venice Biennale—which is ironic since he’s the most rigorous experimental filmmaker you could think of in terms of keeping the faith.
The Independent: For the 2004 Whitney biennial, what are you looking for?
Iles: Excellent work.

The Independent: What does that mean?
Iles: You know it when you see it.

The Independent: Which is what, exactly?
Iles: It’s like saying, “What makes a great painting?” It’s impossible to define, you just know it. I think that great work, whether it’s film or sculpture or painting, has a resonance with its audience that is very powerful, and it transforms you in some way. Your role as a curator is to find that work and bring it to a greater public so that they can sharein what you’ve been moved by. That’s the basis on which I curate—it starts from the heart, not the head.

About :

Ann Lewinson is a New York-based writer on arts and culture. Her work has appeared in Stagebill, Citysearch, and P.S.1’s Special Project Writers Series.