T.D. Godard's use of collage/montage has its illustrious precedents in Warburg, Benjamin, Malraux, and the Dada artists, but it is also a very important key of how to read the history of the 20th Century. Montage from Griffith to Eisenstein, in Fordism, Picasso, Ernst, Cornell, Debord, Conner… but also Joyce, Aragon, Eliot, Burroughs or the architecture of Wright, De Stijl, Le Corbusier, Stirling, Eisenman. Deleuze wrote that philosophy is a montage. Freud’s interpretation of dreams has to do with collage. Godard once said: I always start from how Heartfield and Grosz conceived of collage as a poetical and political tool, to combine different images and change their meanings and usages. And, of course, collage/montage is crucial in your work. You keep on making alive this praxis. Do you feel a sort of weight on your shoulder?
L.K. First off-- thanks, I'm always happy to know that someone feels I'm succeeding with this form I love! And yes I feel that weight, but I think it's worth pointing out that as an artist I've always felt it.
From the moment I began to make experimental films in 1977, one of the main drumbeats of the artistic zeitgeist was "everything has been already done... it's not possible to create something new and original". In the later 1980's (just as my films first received some attention) there was article after article stating experimental film was in severe decline or dead-- one article argued music video had absorbed its formal ideas and made it obsolete; that the golden age of experimental film was over, and that no one could live up to the accomplishments of the great masters most of whom, were not only still living, but still vital and still creating new films.
In response I set for myself different, more modest and achievable expectations. I was genuinely excited and engaged by the history of experimental film and how recent films, that to others weren't obviously groundbreaking, innovative or created by acknowledged masters, were adding to that history. I, like many of my contemporaries, embraced the idea of working in "genre". I was inspired by the idea of historical continuity that working in genre implied-- being a link in an aesthetic chain. Over time, a different idea of what made a contemporary experimental film interesting emerged that had less to do with the previous definitions that prioritized originality and formal innovation. Also, I made it my top priority to create new films. When I'm working on a film I'm concerned with the specifics challenges of that in-progress film and not the surrounding discussions about aesthetic history and what has and hasn't been done. This decision allowed me to stay productive and prolific.
Being aware of precedents sometimes keeps me from doing certain things-- for instance Max Ernst, Harry Smith and especially Larry Jordan's use of Victorian era cutouts made me prioritize other sources. I'm told by other artists that my use of mid 20th century cutouts has sometimes had a similar inhibiting effect on them. But there's so much to use-- collage source material is always growing! It's way too large a pool for a single artist to ever dominate or have time to explore in one lifetime. And if one uses current, contemporary imagery the source material stream is always renewing and changing and easier to acquire.
Another significant factor for me is the ever changing sense of the historical time period I am working and existing in-- both personally in terms of my age, (turned 62 today as i write this) and American culture. The meanings, implicatons and understanding of my preferred mid 20 century source material has constantly mutated since the 1980's when I first started using it-- back then I didn't understand this aspect of aging and time. I naively thought everything would stay in place!
Collage is my preferred mode, because as a form, it keeps unfolding for me in new and surprising ways. For me it is able to describe my subjective/objective experience of the world better than any other form. It's the form I have the deepest attraction to, have spent the most time creating with, and have developed the skills and language to be articulate in.
Last year I watched a Kelly Sears collage film Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise that used material from a high school yearbook from 1974 as it's primary source. This happens to be the year I graduated from high school. What she describes is not at all what I would describe having been that age at that time. Knowing more and knowing less offers endless opportunity for the collage artist. Kelly has successfully captured something in her source material that I find deeply engaging culturally, historically and filmically because it was informed by what the image residue of 1974, in which she didn't live as a high school student, revealed to her. Kelly did what most collage artists usually attempt-- (Godard's description of his starting place included in several of your questions) they change the context of their source materials enough to reveal/create new meanings and perspectives that were usually not intended or understood in the imagery's original context.
However, I do feel the irony in your question, Toni, considering the extensive history you cite above, and how often collage, especially at the beginning of modernism, has been used to escape the weight of art history. When I first got attracted to collage in the late 70's, it wasn't new of course, but it was enthusiastically entering a new phase of vitality, and relevance that lead to its becoming a dominant form during the next decades, especially in experimental film. It felt new and it felt old. Collage's appeal was multi-faceted, but a primary attraction was the way it allowed artists and viewers to address and acknowledge the ever increasing saturation and expansion of the mediascape as a daily reality and historical presence. Now of course Collage is even more embedded in the fabric of our everyday mainstream media culture via the internet and especially youtube, actually it's fairly omnipresent. But it is also often perceived now as a form in decline, as being artistically used up. Mainstream acceptance and cultural absorption, genre dominance and decay, offer their own challenges to me as a collage artist, just as the premature death knell for experimental film did in the 1980's-- but these are not insurmountable either.
T.D. Godard once said that he always starts from an idea that is not his idea, he quotes, he interconnect texts, images, sounds, etc. I think Godard is a great collage artist that combines Picasso with Benjamin. In this sense, Godard connects with Modernism. Greenberg described collage as the most important formal invention of Modernism.
L.K. For me as well, Godard is a great collage artist. Part of what I find most inspiring about thinking about him through this lens is the form his use of collage takes.
In Godard's first decade of work-- the only work of his I've spent significant time with-- this manifests as a collision of different film forms and engagements via juxtaposition. He is adapting narrative and Hollywood film grammar, and often makes explicit homages and references to other films, texts and paintings. Rarely does he include "appropriated imagery"-- film imagery someone else created which is the conventional definition of how collage manifests in filmmaking-- but instead creates his own images of whatever sources he is recontextualizing that significantly expands and questions the idea of what a feature narrative film can be and/or what a film is. So it is more the strategies or concept of collage and appropriation Godard engages then the appropriation of the actual source materials he is inspired by. Last year viewing the Kerry James Marshall retro several times here in L.A., it struck me that Marshall, like early Godard, uses collage as a conceptual grounding and organizing strategy for his paintings but rarely directly incorporates appropriated source imagery.
Joseph Cornell, Pharmacy (1942)
T.D. Hirshhorn’s assemblage has to do more with Scwhitters than Picasso. You already told me that Picasso’s papiers were not so inspiring for you. Picasso said that collage was a way, through deplacement, to subvert the normal thinking of people. Is the work in progress Merzbau of Schwitters anything that inspired you too? Or the other Dada’s artists (Heartfield, Grosz) and their collages, photo-montage, etc.? Or in the photo-montage of Lissitzsky e Rodchenko, during and after the Revolution…
L.K. Yes and no. Schwitters has been most important to me of those you've named but I wouldn't say I have a particularly deep relationship to his work.
As for archiving I don't think about it much or often, though I very much enjoyed an interview about my films with my good friend the filmmaker/scholar Jeffrey Skoller in which he asked me focused questions relating to the archive as a discourse and aesthetic approach. I answered as much with images as with words but was confirmed in my sense that what I am involved in as a collage artist occasionally overlaps with archiving but is essentially its opposite: archives are about preserving what they collect and preserving the relationship to the context from which it emerged, whereas, in most cases, my use of my source materials to create collages with destroys them or is about recontextualizing them. My source materials are valuable to me for their use value in making collages not as collector's items.
Recently, as I renovated and re-organized my garage studio I had to sort through vasts amounts of my collected materials and realized I have "collected" way more imagery and materials that than I will ever have time to use in the remainder of my artistic life. And yet, I am still acquiring new materials (although at a considerably slower pace). Why? It is helpful for my work to have this surplus of sources. It's analogous to the high shooting ratios common in most forms of filmmaking where the distillation process (selection) via editing (choice) yields aesthetic value in the finished collage.
Robert Rauschenberg, Rebus (1955)
T.D. In our previous interview we discussed Joseph Cornell who was a very strategic trait d'union between european Surrealism and american Neo-Dada. And he was also a pioneer of the visionary film in US. You told me that your encounter with Cornell's work convinced you to become a collage filmmaker. What about Rauschenberg and his collage/usage of “pop”-objects?
L.K. Raushenberg I encountered before Cornell actually. I saw a retro of his at MoMA in 1977 in the first months after I became a filmmaker, and loved his work immediately, especially the silk screen paintings which included the Ur print sources (magazines & N.Y. newspapers-- especially the NY Times) of my elementary school childhood, plus 2 male power icons of this era JFK and N.Y. Yankee baseballl star Mickey Mantle. Rauschenberg's source materials were contemporary for him, but for me, seeing them more than a decade after their creation, I was revisiting my past. This was the moment where my understanding of collage as a vehicle for time travel clicked into place. I recognized with great pleasure and surprise just what a powerful hold images of the early 1960's held for me. But I resisted my attraction and was skeptical of its value as a potential theme of any collage work I was already planning to do with cutouts and film at this time. Rauschenberg's collage paintings were also profoundly urban in their layering and encoded the grit and texture of NYC which I never stopped loving after my family moved from Manahattan when I was 3, to the Long Island suburb I did the bulk of my growing up in. Rauschenberg had such a sublime sense of composition and the layering in these works is something I've always wanted to respond to and make my own version of. Hopefully, sometime in the next couple of years I will finally make that attempt. I haven't before because I never felt ready or up to it.
T.D. Bruce Conner, as sculptor and filmmaker, collaged objects and images of consumery society. His use of collage was poetic and political.
L.K. Conner is one of my main inspirations as a filmmaker for the way he edited, included social critique and used music in his films. I had a very limited understanding of how extensive his collage work was until I saw a retrospective at MoCA here in L.A. in the early 2000's and was very excited by his work in other forms. But even with Conner's films I mostly studied and cared about his collage films, it took me more time to appreciate his live action films. I had a sublime encounter with Breakaway at that MoCA retro where Mark McElhattan and I stayed in the dedicated screening booth where that film was looping for at least 10 successive screenings. The power and accomplishment of Conner's editing was mind boggling! It just didn't wear out but felt fresher and newer with each viewing!
T.D. Can we see anything political in your work? I find April Snow (2010) very poetical and political... Circumstantial Pleasures (2015-16) too, in which postfordism operates – in an allusive way – as a suffocating net.
L.K. April Snow involves descriptions of heterosexual romances that economic realities are not the focus of but is certainly embedded in the working class milieus the songs lyrics evoke, and I meant for my imagery to draw attention to this. Detailed social description in works of fiction can often create a clear view of economic realities even though they are not being foregrounded. I heard a quote once about Marx being a fan of Balzac's fiction not because their politics aligned, which of course they didn't, but because Balzac provided such a detailed and objective description of French and Parisian class structure.
Circumstantial Pleasures (2015) will soon no longer really exist-- I took the imagery from that 15 minute film and used it in 2 other films-- Capitalist Roaders and Ratchet The Margin that are part of an in-progress feature length collage film series titled Circumstantial Pleasures which uses contemporary images to contemplate our present world. I have never made a full length series like this that attempts to explore the present through mostly contemporary, non-outmoded source material. This brings me in line with Rauschenberg's choice of source materials.
T.D. Again about the political usage of poetical collage, and collage as a main key to reading the 20th Century. Freud's interpretation of dreams has to do with collage. Freud wrote of “Verdichtungsarbeit” (consolidation work) and “Verschiebungsarbeit” (displacement work). Collage mixes together different, divergent, and oppositive things (Verdichtungsarbeit) – as in a sort of superimposition – and changes their place, their usual collocation. So the collage introduces an otherness into the selfness. This is a subversive way to think, we can say that this is “political”, what do you think?
L.K. I am not sure what I think about this. It's a huge question and I would rather my collage works answer for me as it has for you with April Snow? I do suspect that my definition of what can constitute political addresss is as generous and expansive as yours. Different forms and mediums of artistic address have different impacts in different places and are often limited as to who and what they can address-- but those limitations, that "smallness of audience" doesn't mean they lack positive value and impact. And that's something that I think is undervalued and criticized way too often in discussions of art and politics especially here in the U.S.
T.D. Surrealism was deeply involved with Freudianism. The “language” of dreams is not logical or linear, it’s a break with the concept of of ordinary representation. In these years in which Freud wrote his book on dreams, Modernism arrived breaking with the traditional praxis of representation. Freud wrote that the language of dreams is similar to a rebus, that can appear “unsinning” (senseless), but this rebus breaks with the “als zeichnerische Komposition”, the classic or pre-Modernist painting composition, from Vasari and Alberti to Romanticism. I know you are very interested and focusing on Max Ernst. His paintings are a sort of rebus and he made many collages. But maybe it’s not of the sides of his work that gets the most attention. What can you say about it? He made some collage-paintings around 1920 and later collage-novel as La Femme 100 têtes (1929) or Une semaine de bonté (1933).
L.K. Ernst's collage novels are very important to me as touchstones of associative linkage where dream logic is transferred into waking consciousness in the acts of creation and viewing. They are the part of Ernst's work I've spent the most time with. Last fall in the Calarts Theater School where I teach, I led a workshop class in the creation of a collage novel using Ernst's books as the model and jump off point to work in a discipline of their choice. The students were from many different schools, programs and disciplines- film, set design, experimental animation, photo, art, acting- the appeal of Ernst's invention remains wide and diverse. The students final projects were very exciting but a semester isn't long enough to create something of the width and breadth of a collage novel-- the end result for most students was that they created the equivalent of a short "chapter" in one of Ernst's books. Initially, my transposition of Godard's film Contempt (1963) into the Porcelain Gods collages you are presenting in this issue of La Furia Umana wasn't intended to become a collage novel. But they so forcefully grabbed hold of my attention and imagination that I now hope to grow them into one.
T.D. Gregory Ulmer writes that collage and montage are interconnected but also different and distinct. Collage is the transfer of materials from one context to another, while montage is the dissémination of these materials into new forms. Is there anything like this in your work?
L.K. They are both extremely important to me. I would add about montage that it also involves the sequencing of the materials or their arrangement. Warren Sonbert's films were extremely formative for me in my early 20's in terms of the potential of montage to create new ideas and associations to previous shots with each edit in his films.
I have always shot film with editing in mind-- there is very little that is as pleasurable in the filmmaking process for me as being, totally lost in an edit. I remember 12-14 hour sessions cutting one of my longest continuous films The Pharaoh's Belt where I wouldn't stop to eat-- editing was like amphetamines-- an appetite suppressant! I had an instinct about not wanting to interrupt the process which gained increasing clarity the longer it went on.
T.D. Coming back to Godard and his collagism-- collage cuts and splits the “signifier” from the “signified”. In Godard it also means a décalage between image and word (sound). This relation is often pacific, quiet, domesticated, a clear and simple instruction to follow to repeat the same gestures. Splitting the relation between vision and audio, and between images, collecting different fragments that usually are not in relation, provoke a new way to see, to think, to act, to reply to the world. I think this is the most important political lesson of Godard. For example, Film Socialisme (2010) is not about a film that brings (like a car) a leftist message, socialist contents, ideas, images. Socialism, here, means social usage and re-usage (also in a critical way) of images and words made by someone else, created through Time, and through the social work of thinkers, writers, etc.
L.K. For many of my peers, Godard's 60's films which we first experienced as teenagers in the 70's, inititiated and cued us into a critical and self examining awareness of this new and expanding media reality that we recognized we were living in. In the Godard paraphrase you included above in your second question I especially appreciate how Godard is saying he starts from an idea not his own. One of the great attractions of collage for me is this idea of acknowledging one's own limitations and dependence on others that is implicit in the collage form itself. No matter how disguised and/or hidden a collage source material may become, they are rarely ever completely erased no matter how much one might be "elevating" and/or re-tuning them via recontextualization. Appropriation can be many many things including stealing but it is always on one level a collaboration, a shared authorship. During the last century this has lead to significant questions about understanding where authorship reside in art. At present, many of the world's, and especially advanced capitalism's most severe and perilous challenges all revolve around a refusal to acknowledge our interdependence with other people and our environment. That such interdependence is part of collage's basic DNA, and that collage has such a signficant and widespread use in the contemporary world I can't help but find encouraging in this very frightening historical moment.