GRIM PRAIRIE TALES: Doreen Girard and Irene Bindi Talk about The Kult Mania of Their Expanded Cinema Performance WINTER NIGHT
-- Interview by Kier-La Janisse --
On Sunday December 12th, Austin will be host to a unique cinematic experience dreamt up by a handful of multidisciplinary lo-fi artists from the weirdest and coldest English-speaking place on earth: Winnipeg, Canada. WINTER NIGHT is a program that utilizes live music, live manipulation of 16mm and slide projectors, and Winnipeg’s rich history of DIY crafts, Aboriginal magic, heavy metal, and random violent outbursts to create an anthology of stories sure to make your spine tingle. --------------------------------------------------
Doreen, how did you become interested in slides as your primary visual medium, and what are the advantages or limitations of working with slides?
Doreen: A number of my friends are filmmakers, and I started working with slides as a way of overcoming my own technical shortcomings in terms of making film. I really didn't expect to be working with them still, but the medium still catches me off guard with the images it can produce. The advantages are that I can see what I'm creating with each slide and remove and build layers until I have what I like, which lends itself pretty nicely to experimentation. The disadvantages are that it's a difficult piece of equipment to work with, and really prone to things getting stuck in it. The lens catches more depth of field than the housing allows it to utilize. I started on a Kodak slide projector, and the limitations of working with the images inside such a small chamber led me to building something more open.
You've had to actually make your own large slide projectors to accommodate the multi-dimensional slides you make. Can you describe the equipment you use?
Doreen: I repurposed a bunch of stuff from an old projector and rewired everything, adding a few pieces and attaching a large magnifying lens. The space between the light source and the lens is now far more open, and the projector can be used in a number of different ways. Right now, it's most often being used with slide reels, which crudely animate the slides.
Irene, how did you become interested in experimental cinema in particular? What is it about the processes involved, and the 'outmoded' gear that is so appealing?
Irene: In high school I was interested in visual art and experimental music because I'd stumbled upon London Ontario's history in those areas. I loved Jack Chambers' paintings and found out he made some films. When I saw Hart of London (I took it out of the public library), I was nineteen years old and it completely changed my understanding of what film was or could be. It went from there. Experimental film is fascinating because it uses unwritten languages. As audiences we're called upon to do a lot while watching because we don't know those languages, and it pays off. For me the process of making them is material, and therefore attractive. I want to be able to lay things out and move them around with my hands, have control over the things that for me are key parts of the process. The moving image technologies that have replaced film are not material-based, so they're not very attractive for me. It has nothing to do with nostalgia. Our sound gear is 'outmoded' partly because we use what we can find. We make these things ourselves, and we like the sounds that are created by mechanical and electrical means. Aston (Coles) makes not only instruments, but amplification devices, as does my brother-in-law and collaborator in Blind Squab, Martin Finkenzeller. Together they have an amazing amount of technical knowledge, and most of it is gained from hands-on experience.
I know you work a lot with found footage. What are the benefits/limitations of working with found footage, and at what point does it start being original work?
Irene: The obvious advantage is that the image-making process is cut in half. But more than this, there's the attraction of subverting an image from its pre-established context. A divorce happens, and you've suddenly cut away cultural or historical or narrative associations. Or you can keep parts of these associations and re-use them in different degrees to your own purpose. That's a thrilling process. The duration of an image can determine its meaning more than content in many cases, particularly when paired with other images or different sound. It starts to become original as you invent those new contexts and new meanings yourself. Sometimes these meanings emerge spontaneously through very simple choices. With my new film Celestinorosapalido I've selected footage (both found and shot by me) and edited together pieces of film that have material similarities. These are similarities in the length of a piece of film, its color, its graphic balance. I like to consider narrative content last, or play little or no role in narrative suggestions. They aren't really necessary, because people's brains come up with narratives whenever they see any sequence of images. They already read sequential moving images in a certain way, and I want to discourage that in whatever ways I can in order to open up different possibilities.
But sometimes the audience's narrative instinct can work to the art's advantage. I like the limitations of found footage as well, in that you have parameters you're restricted to. A certain number of feet, a certain image. If you don't like the image you have to find a way to change it. But I find that even when I shoot something myself with a final goal in mind, I end up throwing out that goal and going through the process I've just described, treating the footage in exactly the same way I treat found footage.
Doreen, how do you select the music for your performances, and how has Slattern (Julia Ryckman's solo project) become so intertwined with your work?
Doreen: I often choose the music first. I've been a musician my whole life, and music is a huge part of my emotional life. I usually have some rare piece of music in mind that I wish other people could hear, especially the darker, heavier stuff, which is not as common in cinema, and maybe not as familiar to some moviegoers. The relationship with Julia is great because we have complete trust in each others' aesthetic choices and creative process. We don't need to manage what the other is doing and so there's a lot of freedom in working with her. With the pieces we've made so far, the narrative is completely driven by Julia. If anything, I'm accompanying her.
How do you pick the subjects for your pieces? I know Sontianen is a very sad story, and the animator Bill Plympton was blown away by it when he saw it performed in Winnipeg last May.
Julia usually pitches an idea at me and then she develops the story and I build images around the songs. With Sontiainen, she had been to see this odd little museum in rural Saskatchewan with the ship and all the inventions Tom Sukanen had made, and was really moved by that story.
Julia is actually coming down to Texas to perform live with many of your pieces. She's a huge force in the musical scene in Winnipeg from her various projects (The Gorgon, This Hisses and more) - but what can you tell Texas audiences Julia, and about what to expect from the music of Slattern?
Doreen: Her voice is celestial, and the music is fuzzy, uncomfortable and surreal. Watching her perform, you feel like you've been caught sleepwalking in midnight traffic. Julia's music has been called "sentimental bedroom doo-wop" and compared to Suicide a number of times. She plays a hand-me-down Yamaha keyboard that used to belong to her step-grandmother and came with piles of Readers Digest music books. Sometimes it's linked to a midi synth, run through a fuzzbox, often using amp overdrive for emotional heights. Drum samples come from the presets on the Yamaha or from a vintage Roland Compurhythm drum machine. Her vocals are run on two lines; one is run straight through a tube pre-amp and the other runs through an analogue delay pedal.
Irene, the accompanying music is also obviously a huge part of what you do - since you've done a couple shows with Doreen Girard now, how have you found that the booming racket of Deaf Squab melds with the ethereal creepiness of Slattern?
Irene: We're fairly manic and somewhat harsh, and they are smooth, thoughtful, ethereal. Both Doreen and Julia are trained musicians. They both make very beautiful, intricately crafted, harmonious work. And yet there are obvious similarities between our work and theirs. After we first performed together, Doreen approached me right away to see whether we could get something like this going. Obvious things that come up are the darkness, mystery and nature, and regionalism. But most of all the visceral experience of both live music and live moving image. Aston and I work hard on music, but we're untrained. We don't feel the sound is accompaniment to the film, particularly in the films where I use the kick shutter, because it's actually the sound that is dictating what is seen on screen in those cases. It's more like combat. I've edited these two films carefully, and hand painted one of them, but if the sound dictates it, my foot will stay down on the kick pedal and the secondary shutter will plunge us into blackness. Meanwhile my hard work is running through the projector unseen! That's perfect though, because those parts might be seen in the next performance, and the overall experience is what counts.
Can you describe the interplay between your drum kit and the 16mm projector you use in the performance?
Irene: Yes, the bass drum of my drum kit has a momentary switch connected to the kick pedal. The switch controls a solenoid actuator that pulls an external shutter attached to the outside of the projector on a hinge down to block the beam of light each time the kick pedal is hit. So basically it's a secondary shutter attached to the kick drum that can create flicker or blackness. We had a simpler and less reliable system rigged up earlier on, and Aston came up with this new one based on old Navy projector lamps which were used for sending Morse code.
Do you think performance-based or expanded cinema are becoming a bigger part of the theatrical experience these days? Or maybe it's just coming out of the galleries and into more accessible spaces now? What kind of infusion do you think it gives to movie-going?
Irene: I don't know whether it is. I really hope so. If it is I think that might partly be because people are typically more and more fascinated with the technologies that they grow farther and farther away from over time. Even now, 13 years after I started making films (and only one year after developing my first expanded cinema performance), I'm surprised at how surprised other people are that artists are using this process. Film as visual art has always been a kind of orphan - not fully accepted by the movie world or the art world. You're right, the closest thing to a home that it's found outside of galleries is in microcinemas and open venues. I'm over the moon that we have the chance to do this at the Alamo, a theater that attracts every type of audience. Any audience is great, but I really like the typical movie-goer because they're already attached to the theater experience. Someone like Alex MacKenzie is always a huge hit, not only because the work is great, but because the audience feels like they're part of the experience. As opposed to sitting back and witnessing a completed artwork that exists outside of time, people at an expanded cinema performance feel like the art is happening with them and they're a part of it, which they are.
Doreen: In Winnipeg, it's common to have someone perform the soundtrack to your film live, as Guy Maddin notably did on a very large scale at the Centennial Concert Hall with live orchestra, narrator and foley. Or there's raw fur's outdoor un-curated guerilla exhibitions. Or 8 bit, circuit bending, gamer culture parties that have audience members playing with the devices that produce the images live. I don't know if we'll ever see it happening down at the cineplex, but it seems to have become an integral aspect of the indie cinematic experience, at least in Winnipeg.
Irene, you’ve traveled around a lot – who are some of the other artists you’ve had a chance to work with? Weren't you working with Ravi Shankar at some point?
Irene: I haven't worked with many people outside of Deaf Squab or Blind Squab (Aston Coles, Celia Coles, Martin Finkenzeller), but Aston and I did recently have the opportunity to play with the Nihilist Spasm Band. That was a dream come true, as they are our idols, particularly Murray Favro who is a fascinating artist. I've followed them since I was a teen, and they're still my main inspiration when it comes to music, sound, noise. I did travel with Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka and group of musicians. I made a short film for him after two baby Black Phoebes fell out of a tree near his home in Encinitas. He's a great film-lover, particularly of classic Hollywood, and when we talked it was always about movies.
After all the traveling, what brought you to Winnipeg?
Irene: Aston and I had been in southern California, and before that in Victoria for a while, and we really missed the snow. We wanted to be closer to family in Ontario. When I discovered that Winnipeg is on a throroughfare of a massive bird migration route, the ornithologist in me was decided. We saw a Pileated Woodpecker in the parking lot next to our apartment the first year we were here. That's a fact. So we knew it was the right thing to be here. We didn't know anyone or have any job prospects. I was also a fan of what I'd seen from the Winnipeg Film Group (particularly Guy Maddin's Archangel, Noam Gonick's 1919, and Deco Dawson's work, all of which I'd previously seen in Toronto).
How would you describe the crossover between the world of DIY crafts and grim black metal/doom in the Winnipeg arts scene?
Doreen: One of the things I've always really loved about being in Winnipeg is that there's not much separation between "disciplines." The metal kids go to the art shows and the art nerds go to the metal shows. A lot of the visual artists I know are in a bunch of bands and vice versa. It's a very smeary line. Winnipeggers are also known for being cheap! To hell if anyone here is going to pay for something they can build for themselves, and I think that turns up all over the place in our cultural aesthetic and the abundance of contraptions being made, such as Irene Bindi's kick shutter drum kit/film projector. Typically in outsider music, there's almost a fondness for poor production while preserving artistic vision. Many of the crafts I see or have made have this in common. Everything seems very ramshackle and unpredictable, very ephemeral. There's almost a feeling of bravado for just making it through the show without your equipment falling apart!
Irene: I'm just getting to know this place after over 4 years, and I'm a bit of a shut-in so I don't have the best perspective, but Winnipeg can be an amazingly welcoming mashed-up community. Having said that, actual black metal is a solitary thing, so I don't know that it enters into the discussion that much, other than the fact that it has the do-it-myself element. Doom might be different, a bit friendlier. If there's an interest in those things from the DIY/anarchist types here it may have to do with the fact that so much of that music is made by people on their own. They do the recordings, they make the artwork and the tapes themselves. Audiences are obviously broadening, but that likely has more to do with ongoing searches for something that expresses uniqueness than it has to do with the music itself. That's like anything, and I'm not critical of it; I think that any way in is good if there are a few people who really dive in and become obsessed, but I don't think black metallers care for it. Winnipeg has always been a metal town, and if there's a crossover I think it's more about construction than craft.
Do you think the extreme cold and isolation of Winnipeg has been more a help or a hindrance in your own creative development?
Doreen: Your choices of activity in the dead of winter here are pretty slim. When it's finally too cold even for drunk tobogganing, the drunk pacing indoors will finally lead to the release of creative juices. Also, winter seems to be more conducive to people huddling together indoors eating, drinking and discussing. A lot of ideas are hashed out together at these get-togethers. They almost become informal workshops.
Irene: It's been a huge help for practical reasons. I like to work at home, either alone or with one of my family collaborators. The four of us are sharing a space where we can make noise and have a wood/metal shop and a studio for the Steenbeck. We work in separate pockets. Being alone, forced indoors, means teaching yourself how to do things, because you either teach yourself or you go out into the world to find help, and the world is much too cold. I'm lucky because Aston and Martin have taught me some basics about carpentry, electrical, and simple physics and optics that have helped a lot. The winter is also frightening, in an exciting way. I don't drive, and I know that on certain days if I walk from my house to my destination the same way I would in the summer, I might lose my nose. Public transit keeps me alive! That makes you feel the reality of it. The landscape itself is also very beautiful in winter, and that's an ongoing inspiration. But it sometimes has a tension in it, because all of the violence that you see out on the streets here in the warmer months has gone inside and people are living with it. Is Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg a myth? Or is Winnipeg really that weird and interesting?
Doreen: He had to clean it up a bit for distribution.
Irene: No, it's no myth, it barely scratches the surface! It is deeply strange here and the story is huge and multi-faceted. No one film could express it. Winnipeg is a regionalist's dream.
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