Stephanie Wuertz and Sasha Janerus are the real, living avant-garde; all the rest are fakes.
The path through which a critic encounters the artists he/she is working on seems to resemble, at its best, to an adventure, or rather a picaresque novel. Such is the case for my meetings with Stephanie Wuertz and Sasha Janerus The conversation that follows, which presents itself as an online document edited by the three of us, is in fact a result of several exchanges I had with the two Brooklyn-based artists. Most of them were carried out in less than formal situations that are extremely difficult to reproduce on paper without a fatal loss in terms of content. We tried several times to meet up in person to discuss properly themes and topics relevant to their work but while I was visiting New York in the last months we mostly ended up sipping drinks after screenings, visiting gallery shows, or plainly working together on their filmic production - or even setting up a dinner for fourteen people in Chelsea. Thus, this interview deserves to be read as a portion of constant and virtually never ending discussion we carry on whenever we have the chance to meet. Hopefully, it would not only show insights on their challenging, complex, and layered work, but it would also allow the reader to grasp the complicity that sometimes links the act of writing on art to those who produce it. It is this very same complicity, as the reader may already have understood, that enabled us to put the “impossible” Brakhage quote in the beginning of this text.
Superimposed portrait of Stephanie Wuertz and Sasha Janerus
[all images © and courtesy of the artists except otherwise noted]
Enrico Camporesi: I have been telling you a number of times that I wanted to remake the classic Film Culture interview by Lindley Hanlon with Ken Jacobs, in which most notably you can find the line: “Get lost and get lost again, this is how to learn about art.”1 This leads me to a canonical question: training. Would you like to tell me how and when you started making art, and present briefly your path?
Stephanie Wuertz: Getting lost is a great analogy and a perfect fit for me. I grew up in St. Louis and didn’t have much contact with art early on, except for some vivid memories of the stained glass in church. But my Dad is obsessed with movies in high school, he worked at the drive-in my grandfather managed, so growing up we watched a lot of old Hollywood films. But I didn’t have my first encounter with art until high school after an experience looking at the work of Max Beckmann while on LSD. Shortly, after I began drawing and taking photographs on 35mm. I mucked around a bit my first year of college not really knowing what I wanted to do, and eventually dropped out to the horror of my parents and moved to New Orleans. There I took figure drawing classes, which led me to enrolling in an art school in Memphis. I began making hand drawn animations and series of photographs manipulated with paint or collage. I became interested in the progression of movement and the recording of manual events. I wasn’t really interested in narrative, but like a dance a beautiful movement can convey a story. After school, I had a two-year detour in Asia. I worked in Japan and studied shadow puppetry, briefly in East Java, Indonesia. About ten years ago I moved to New York, where I met Sasha who first exposed me to experimental film. I got a Masters degree in Media Studies at The New School, where I took my first film classes, and learned optical printing at Millennium Film Workshop. At both institutions, I found mentors and teachers in Jeanne Liotta, MM Serra and Kelly Spivey. Millennium has played a major role in my work and life for the last three years, both good and bad. I served on the Board, curated programs and helped with general maintenance. Without it I wouldn't have been able to make Serpentine (2013). It has the only optical printer available for public use in the city and when it was located on East 4th street I had access to shooting in the large black box theatre, which no longer exists. Access to space is very important for art making and sadly it is too expensive in the city, which is why I’ve moved to shooting on the streets.
Sasha Janerus: That bit about getting lost resonates with me, too. Where am I? Would somebody turn on the lights? Hello?
SW: Step into the light. We are waiting for you.
EC: Welcome Sasha, I wanted to start with this topic, and I had a reason, besides being a classic question that needs to be asked. It seems that overall, your work as a certain hermeneutic quality regarding key moments from the past. To state it simply, one feels that each of your works bears strong connection with turn of the century imagery. I am thinking of Bodily HeavensI &II (2011-2012), and Serpentine, mostly. My hypothesis is that you try and reconnect with this era almost avoiding contacts with the early filmic avant-garde of the 1920s, and cutting directly to the present. Hence why I did not want to use the word “influence,” but then how would you describe your relationship with, say, scientific imagery, and the serpentine dances?
Still from Serpentine (Stephanie Wuertz, 2013)
SW: In figure drawing, I love drawings of just hands, eyes or an assortment of different body parts on the same page like fragments taken out of context. That way of recording and cataloguing the body carried over into my early hand drawn animations. They were very primitive and jerky made with not many frames, but I liked being aware of the mechanism at
Later, seeing Ken Jacobs’ work with stereographs and other archival material I began to learn about early film history and proto-cinema like Muybridge’s chronophotography and Marey’s motion studies. Eventually, Sasha pointed me to Didi-Huberman’s Invention of Hysteria on Jean-Martin Charcot and the photographic iconography of the Salpêtrière. This became my thesis project at The New School and led to my discovery of the serpentine dance. My film Serpentine is very much a motion study.
EC: I wanted to share with you a quote by Huysmans on Loie Fuller. He basically hated Fuller’s dances – can you imagine him appreciating an Illinois born star? Or better: he hated Fuller as a dancer. Instead he said: “All the glory goes to the electrician. It’s American.”2 What did you find compelling in the serpentine dances? And how would you define the relationship between performance and the filmic apparatus in your film?
SW: The serpentine dance has been allied with the hysterics in various texts: it's hypnotic effect, the use of electricity, theatricality, self-replication and identity play. Something I read even stated the butterfly dance resembled a giant dancing uterus. I was drawn to the frenzied, unrelenting movement and the instability of the shapes as they rise and fall. I've always been a sucker for drapery. The veils simultaneously mask and reveal the figure like a game of hide and seek. I also liked the way the fabric traced lines through space almost like drawing. I was struck by how popular and widely copied the dance was in its own time, being replicated in print, photos, sculpture and Art Deco design. Fuller even had a whole pavilion to herself at The World's Fair in Paris in 1900. It's true Fuller wasn't a great dancer. She was very reliant on stagecraft and she experimented constantly using magic lantern slides, colored lights, mirrors and fabric. She turned her body into a place where images are produced like a slideshow of fleeting attractions: a snake, a butterfly, a flower or water. In a similar way my film is indebted to the optical printer. I wasn't completely satisfied with the actual performance, so I used the printer to create a new one using: superimposition, bi-packing, optical zooms, shutter effects and single framing. The combinations were endless. I also think this film shares an affinity with the West Coast psychedelic films of the 1960’s that were using a lot of similar techniques and experiments to replicate hallucinatory states.
SJ: “All glory to the electrician!” sounds like Vertov to me. Isn’t “soviets plus electricity” just another way of saying “audiences plus cinema?” And when Cavell observes - rightly, I think - that nothing in a film is as important as the fact of its projection, isn’t this the apotheosis of the electrician?
The question is: why is Huysmans so phobic? “Not enough art,” would be the answer. Not enough form: too amorphous. “Informe” is not so far off. Or Sartre’s “visqueux,” with its all its feminine associations in train. Huysmans’s texts, and the naturalism from which they sprang, themselves performed this amorphousness, anxiously, in the extreme parataxis which threatens to dissolve all narration, all focalizations, all subjects into an disordered flow of substances or percepts.
And then another ambiguity: Loie was a product of the music halls, liminal spaces in which the classes mixed. Her first Parisian venue was, in fact, the Folies Bergere, one of the first buildings in Paris to have electric lighting installed. Much of the Salon criticism that greeted Manet's final masterpiece concerned itself with whether he'd done justice to this strange new light. It was here that Loie Fuller pioneered a form of art hardly less rare today - truly popular abstraction.
EC: While we’re at it we should also dwell more on this same era we are talking about. You have shown me parts of a very ambitious project on the iconography of la Salpetrière. How is it coming along? Could you describe it briefly for our readers? There are two points that I would like you to develop, or comment on. The first is the choice of turning one of the monitors 90° on the side, which to my understanding implies a strong re-reading of the photographic original. The other point is: as you introduce time and duration in those pictures, you plan also on printing on porcelain some of the images. What is your concern with this particular kind of depth? Would it be a way to bring time into those images by turning them into three dimensional objects?
Diagram for Camera Altera (work-in-progress)
SW: As I mentioned earlier, Sasha and I have been working on and off on Camera Altera since I was in grad school. It is a multi-channel video installation that focuses on the photographic iconography of the Salpêtrière produced under Charcot’s supervision.
SJ: Various filmmakers have been experimenting with alternate video formats and orientations lately, but we were inspired by classic examples: Robert Morris’ L-beams and column performance, and Eisenstein’s essay “The Dynamic Square,” in which he calls for a frame whose dimensions vary with the successive images.3 In a passage near to Stephanie’s heart, “the crocodile stretched out basking in the sun is flanked by upright standing giraffe in the company of the ostrich and flamingo - all three clamouring for a decent screen frame appropriate to their upright shape!” Of course, it’s a fantasy, a way of keeping the faith with montage as it’s displaced by mise en scene, the routinization of editing, and sound. Playing with the orientation of the CRT monitors was of asserting the potential adequation of the apparatus to the documents, which have both portrait and landscape orientations, and of not simply cutting the details into so many landscapes. To resist cropping as pictorializing--incompletely and inadequately, but it’s the resistance that counts--is to resist, or at least protest against, what amounts to a re-hystericization of these images and of the women who occasioned them.
It was also meant to heighten their “sculpturality,” which is to say: their obtrusive objecthood; the quasi-corporeality they impart to the at times rather spectral images, as a sort of supplement. It’s meant as an ethical gesture, summoning the voiceless dead into an assertive, but also compromised, presence.
As for the porcelain, there were to be both wall reliefs and free-standing figurines. There’s some play with the bourgeois interior, in the double sense of the word, with the fetish, with white-on-white, along with the sheer strangeness of having an image assume an additional dimension. Also, it’s good to have something to sell; if one is to enter the art world, it’s a good idea to at least try and gain a foothold in the market. Otherwise, one’s dependent on invitations and grants and blah blah blah. It seems you have more precarity and pressures to conform in the non-profit arena. We’ve also considered silkscreening pillows with a screaming Augustine. A more integral sculptural component is a model train endlessly circling a conch shell, which would have to be present in any installation.
Still from Calgon (Stephanie Wuertz; Sasha Janerus, 2014)
EC: On this note, Sasha stressed the “sculptural” quality of your most recent work, Calgon (2014). It seems to me that in fact the way it is structured, by blocks of repetitive patterns, bears a link with sculpture. Is that what you had in mind? On this aspect, could you point out where in Rosalind Krauss’ expanded field (see below) would Calgon be?4 I find it particularly apt since the soundtrack in your film could be described as “site-construction” sound.
SJ: It was very much about those repetitive blocks of movement. But of course flatness is important. It's a very assertively flat film, with some pretty overt references to painting, even to Frank Stella. It isn’t Two Wrenching Departures (Ken Jacobs, 2006), which was an influence all the same. If it’s sculptural, it’s more to do with time than space, with appearing than appearance: a sort of temporal sedimentation in reception. An obtrusiveness, an objectality in the psychoanalytic sense as well as the others.
Also: the sculptural as a back-formation from the monumental. Though the source is 16mm, it would have been intended for TV. The film is only meant to live in the theater, which confers a certain size, a certain publicity, a certain attitude with respect to intention. I suppose that puts it in some sort of relationship to architecture, but where it falls on the Greimas square is beyond me.
Diagram from Rosalind Krauss’ essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, 1979.
EC: Could you tell me something more about the projects that you are now developing? I see that you have a show at Microscope coming up soon.
SW: The show at Microscope titled “A typical murdered beauty,” will present recent work by Sasha and myself.5 The blurb reads: “Two hypnotic found footage films, a pair of cine poems that tarry in the cracks of the urban façade, a music video that shimmers like a golden shower. Mostly world premieres.” The found footage pieces are Calgon and a premiere of Sasha’s 4 (2015).
SJ: I'm presently finishing this short film - entitled, simply, 4 - for our screening at Microscope. The copy for the show describes it as “Raw news copter footage of Francis Pusok’s attempted equestrian escape from and subsequent beating by, San Bernardino’s finest, fragmented and scrambled to release its latent, mythic significance.”
I had wanted to do something more topical after Calgon, which is such an early 70s, faded pink, hair-in-the gate film. I had, in fact, challenged myself to find a way of utilizing the sort of imagery of police violence that's been all over the place lately, but had no clue how to go about it until I came across this particular document, after which I put together a rough cut in a few hours, with next to no preparatory work.
Still from 4 (Sasha Janerus, 2015)
The mythic dimension is key; around the time I started on the film I was reading Furio Jesi’s Spartakus book, which was just translated last year. It's a sort of western: a revisionist, psychedelic, avant-garde, documentary western. You had sent to me a note about the film in which you’d mentioned Anthony Mann, which is flattering and even apposite: he has such a feeling for landscape, such a knack for getting at the authentically archaic. Border Incident (1949) and Men in War (1957) are all-time favorite films of mine. But I don't think John Alton would have approved of the “cinematography.” Jancsó, too, and Ken’s [Jacobs] The Doctor's Dream (1977). An odd set of influences.
SW: I will also show a work in progress currently untitled. A collection of observations shot over the year on the streets of New York and St. Louis that draws on science fiction like Ernst Jünger’s The Glass Bees and surrealist novels, Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant and Soupault’s Last Nights of Paris specifically Aragon's idea of “a feeling for nature: a frisson in which an object or place conveys an idea materially” and the passage on “The Statue’s Speech” in which a memorial sculpture voices a critique of himself and the people ebbing and flowing around him. The spaces are mainly empty: storefronts, ruins, construction sites, billboards, public parks. I've been looking at them almost like portraits of the people who inhabit them. People exist in the form of shadows, passersby, a few children playing, but mainly statues and mannequins act as a kind of stand-in. And visually it’s comprised of a patchwork of different film stocks in both color and b/w. It’s currently silent. Sasha and I have been thinking of creating a longer modular piece from this footage with voice-over from different texts that could be presented in different arrangements. And you graciously read two of the texts we recorded recently: a writing by Donald Judd on Marfa and Durgnat on Renoir’s massacre of the rabbits.6 So the way it is presented at the screening may change down the road. I’ll also show a music video I’ve been working on for my friend Alice Cohen’s new album out this summer. A found footage piece using selections from outtakes and optical printing tests left at Millennium over the years.
SJ : I’m trying to move more into performance, both on film and off; particularly, performance rooted in 60s idioms, before “performance art” had congealed as a discursive space: happenings, theater work, underground film, etc. There . Like those folks, I'm constantly inspired by relatively marginal Hollywood product: if my work could somehow synthesize the primal anguish of Attack! (Robert Aldrich, 1956), the delirium of Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, 1935), the hypnotic woodenness and routinized genericity of Borzage’s Liliom (1930), I'll have done what I set out to do. Right now everything remains "in development": research, discussions, etc.; and in “development hell,” i.e. fundraising. I'm more and more interested in working with text, in dramaturgy or in "setting" text alongside image the way you might set text to music. Right now I'm applying for a grant to do a Lehrstück in a senior home!
And I continue to make more pictorially oriented work: collages, paintings, fabric pieces, minimalist works in packing tape on cardboard. I hope to soon have some very large prints of black and white, xeroxed-then-pdfed American landscapes by Bierstadt et al. in a gallery.
Artwork by Sasha Janerus
EC: I would like to end our conversation with an unconscious poem created by a mutual friend. I am copying it from the notes I took that night:
Space and the material conditions
The material conditions facilities
Something like at the end of the day the important is getting paid
I’m drunk and I had too many cigarettes...
This is bad this is bad...
I was wondering if you want to elaborate more on the relationship between modernism and real estate.
SJ: The impact of changes in the real estate market--and in the urban fabric more generally--on artistic production is a large topic. I should mention Joshua Shannon’s The Disappearance of Objects for its fine discussion of how some of the best sixties art was engaging with or responding to what was happening to New York. I think the essential points to be made, specifically about defunct real estate ecologies - i.e. about living situations - in New York are:
1. that artists could work expansively. These were spaces that could accommodate large, messy paintings. The practices that followed took this expansiveness, and this mess, as points of departure. Nauman - admittedly a West Coast artist, but on the same wavelength - pushed this aspect furthest: art simply was what the artist did in her studio. Space is an extension of the ego. Lack of space is a constriction of the ego.
2. that artists had consistent access to live/work situations. Much of what is characteristic of the “neo-dada” investigation of the relationship between art and life rooted from the particularities of spaces that encompassed both. There were other hybrid, multipurpose spaces as well, of course: live/show, work/show (e.g. Millennium Film Workshop, which we spent several years working to rescue, was kicked out of Manhattan by La MaMa in 2012), etc.. There was a porousness, a troubling of inside/outside, public/private, that reflected the authentic urbanity that New York is losing. These sorts of impulses are still there, but they've been captured and become more and more routinized and administered: open studios, the High Line, Creative Time, “social practice”... To take an example from experimental film exhibition, Views from the Avant-Garde was in a sense a replacement for the Collective for Living Cinema--a profoundly different organism, to say the least. Already in ‘92 Manhattan could no longer support a venue like that, and so Mark McElhatten took his sensibility uptown. I'll refrain from weighing in on its successor, Projections, except to note that it has so far perpetuated this tendency.
that it sustained marginal practices and ways of life. This is true of the hard cases - the Harry Smiths and Jack Smiths--but a broad range of emergent practices. The problem with money in art is less that art gets to be so expensive as that there's no longer any kind of insulation from financial pressures, and so less time to work, less freedom, appetite for risk, etc. - less space to become what one is. (Of course obscene prices and obscene precarity are both moments of the same redistribution of wealth.) Much as I admire something like the Art Workers’ Coalition, artists are, in class terms, petit bourgeois through and through. They are entrepreneurs, and even the type of the entrepreneur--which isn’t to say, as we are informed ad nauseum, that entrepreneurs are artists in turn. But revolutionaries are typically middle class as well, and even entrepreneurs after a fashion. One may surmise that when marginal practices are not thereby peripheral - when they thrive in direct proximity to power, in the belly of the beast - something special may happen. They are imbued with an urgency, a sort insurgent potential. Insurgent marginality - it's really a sort of strange burlesque of the will-to-power - is part of the DNA of “advanced” modern art, the air that art-speak breathes. All the same, it needs roots in lived experience. Artists, like revolutionaries, very often become unsavory as they become professionals.
A visual commentary on modernism and real estate
Of course, there are various points to be made about architecture, public space, demographic patterns, and so forth - and not least the simple fact of the city, and inhabited world - becoming less and less photogenic. Back in my day, the lepers who lined up along the roadside to beg for bread were quite picturesque!
Stephanie Wuertz is an artist, filmmaker and curator based in Brooklyn, New York. The bulk of her work is carried out in relation to the institutions and concerns of postwar American avant-garde and underground film, and is committed to continuing its tradition of formal acuity, criticality and liberatory politics. Wuertz has previously shown her work, among others, at Microscope Gallery, Silent Barn, New Museum, Eyebeam, Spectacle Theater, Anthology Film Archives, Millennium Film Workshop, and San Francisco Cinematheque.
Sasha Janerus would prefer to vanish into anonymity, while still exerting a little spooky action at a distance. He’s an artist, writer, filmmaker, curator and musician. But mostly he enjoys sitting in the dark crying along with the ladies on the screen.
1 See Lindley Hanlon, “Kenneth Jacobs, Interviewed by Lindley Hanlon [Jerry Sims Present] April 9, 1974,” Film Culture, No. 67–69, 1979.
2 Joris-Karl Huysmans quoted in “Loie Fuller’s Glory Laid to the Light”, Chicago Tribune, 8 January 1928.
3 See Sergei Eisenstein, “The Dynamic Square”, Film Essays and a Lecture, ed. by Jay Leyda, Praeger, New York 1970, pp. 48-65.
4 See Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”, October, Vol. 8 (Spring 1979), p. 37.
5The event took place on June 22, 2015.
6 See Donald Judd, Collected Writings 1975-1986, Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven 1986, pp. 96-97;
and Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir, University of California Press, Berkeley / Los Angeles 1974, p. 186.