Toni D'Angela: I'd like to talk a little bit about the practice of collage. How did you "meet" the collage? How have you experienced this artistic practice? How and when did you start?
Lewis Klahr: It was very much in the air in NYC in the late 1970's after i graduated from college. Found Footage filmmaking was emerging as a dominant genre in experimental film circles. I saw several Wooster Group theatrical productions which had a very strong effect on me. Collage was attractive because it allowed me to explore the past in terms of personal memory and history.
TD: Did the collages of Picasso and Braque (around 1912) and the "montage" of the Berlin Dadaists (around 1916), have an influence on your personality as artist?
LK: Not much. Cubism didn't make much sense to my eye. The Surrealists, Schwitters and Max Ernst did. But in terms of 2-d work Schwitters and Rauschenberg offered the most initial interest and inspiration. I saw Rauschenberg's silk screen paintings before I knew I wanted to be a visual artist when I was in high school and was struck by their texture, superimposition and the way they used newspaper imagery that I recognized from my childhood.
TD: The collage is also came into the American painting, the late Modernism. One of the first exhibitions of abstract expresionism was called "Exhibition of Collage", but even before 1942, and before the works of Robert Rauschenberg during the '50, it was Joseph Cornell the artist who had introduced the collage in the visual arts and into the american experimental film. What do you think was his most original contribution? And how Cornell has inspired you? If he did...
LK: I didn't know Cornell's work until 1980 and the extensive MOMA retrospective that I was fortunate enough to be in NY to see. I went 5 times as it was a huge turning point for me. From my encounter with his work, I was convinced that collage was the mode I most wanted to work in. Cornell was especially helpful to me in two regards: emotion and revery. His work granted me permission to create emotion-centric films. It also gave me a powerful first hand experience of a kind of 'eternal time' that could be glimpsed while in the revery of viewing art work. While I had had this latter experience of altered time throughout my life, viewing movies and listening to music, seeing Cornell's work was the moment I consciously defined this experiences importance to me as a film artist and its depiction as a goal of what I aspired to create.
TD: What about the collage of other masters of the experimental film as Harry Smith, Robert Breer (even though both are not totally identifiable with the practice of collage) and Larry Jordan?
LK: I admire and was inspired by the work of all 3. Larry Jordan's Our Lady of the Sphere was the film I saw that alerted me to what could be done with cutouts. The way he, Harry Smith and Ernst had made use of Victorian cutouts made me feel that I could do something similar with more recent outmoded mass imagery from my own childhood.
TD: Apart from these references probably well known, what can you tell me of the (other) sources that have inspired you?
LK: Influence is a funny thing. It is very broad – it includes the obvious: Jacobs, Warhol, Anger, Conner but in some ways I was effected more by certain movements or moments then filmmakers. For instance Psychodrama figures large with its exploration of the mythic, symbolic, pyschological self and depiction of the subjective hooked to narrative. Or the eclectic and diverse approach to filmmaking at the Collective for Living Cinema in the late 1970's.
Often overlooked because I shared more of an outlook and sensibility than a direct obvious relationship with their work (they weren't making cutout films though many were grappling with appropriation) are my extremely formidable and exciting fimmaking peers: Peggy Ahwesh, Mark Lapore, Phil Solomon, Ericka Beckman, Julie Murray, Nina Foneroff, Scott Stark, Esther Shatavsky, Craig Baldwin, and of course, my wife Janie Geiser (as both a filmmaker and theater artist).
And then there's the poet and scholar Walter Lew who I've been in aesthetic dialogue with since my early 20's. Or the scholar Tom Gunning who has certainly had as much influence on me as any fimmaker.
And finally there's the history of narrative filmmaking and in particular classic Hollywood. I still spend more time looking and thinking about the latter than any other kind of filmmaking. Some key directors for me – Jean Epstein, Jacques Tourneur, Jean Cocteau, Jean-Pierre Melville, Vincente Minnelli, Max Ophuls, Otto Preminger, Nick Ray, Wim Wenders. But then there's individual films, too numerous to mention, like Sylvia by Gordon Douglas or Hercules in the Haunted World by Mario Bava or Welles' Mr. Arkadin. These three probably tell you more about my aesthetic choices and interests then anything else on the above list in the way they marry the high and the low, the hidden and the blunt, poverty and the sublime.
TD: What do you think of found footage? Today is a practice very developed and almost predominant in a certain kind of cinema, and in filmmakers that are different among them, we could quote Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi, William E. Jones, actually yourself, for your usage of it in Her Fragant Emulsion.
LK: I had began making films in 1977 and Her Fragrant Emulsion is from 1986-87. It is my first film to receive a good deal of critical attention however.
Found Footage was a genre I paid attention to – it was so dominant for such a long time that it was impossible not too. But it is a genre that peaked in the 1990's and I don't go out of my way to look at much now. And in the past Bruce Conner, Morgan Fisher, Godard... The collage, of course, is different from found footage, but they are practices that have something in common, they have been associated and related.
I understand found footage filmmaking to be a vital branch of collage. Anytime one uses appropriated imagery one starts to enter the collage realm.
In my maturation as a film artist, found footage filmmaking was a stage of development-- a half way point between shooting live action films in the world and working with cutouts which has been my primary form of address. In my case, I needed to move onto working with cutouts to get the control I desired over appropriated sounds and images.
TD: Can you describe your relationship (feeling, critical thought...) with the images, the signs, the archives of the past?
LK: That's a huge topic that my films address better than I can in words. But for me the most uncanny experience I've ever had is the difference between the past and the present. It's a mystery I can't resolve for myself – how things are present and new and then age and disappear. It's the shape of life lived.
TD: It can be said that the melancholic tone of your works is not just simple nostalgia, but a way to challenge the "identity" of the present, to make it larger, a way to open the present to the past, a way to broaden the horizons at least?
LK: Thanks, that's beautifully articulated and I aspire for my work to have that effect. My subject is concerned with, to quote Tom Gunning, "lived time" more than a desire to merely time travel backwards. Though i find nothing wrong with that very human impulse and would like to add that I find simple nostalgia to be infinitely more complicated than most people give it credit for being. I'm continually surprised by how threatening and frightening simple nostalgia seems to be for so many people. To me, making art about the past always reflects many things about the present tense it is being authored in. It can't help but do that. I like to describe my work as describing the pastness of the present.
Melancholy is important to me in several other ways – first of all despite the sadness, regret and/or longing it contains, it also contains a great deal of ecstasy. Melancholy also affords me a way in to the timelessness of revery which is important to my work process and the impact of my finished films.
TD: In Lethe and False Aging there is a sort of invitation to practice a certain oblivion to rediscover the tradition too, to see it with different eyes and discover something new. So maybe everything was already invented, like it says, (I think of modernism and the avant-garde cinema too), but it's still possible re-invent it... Even through the process of hybridization of genres and materials... The past, tradition, tradition of modernism too, the myths of American society, as are the clouds of Trilogy of Nimbus: they are full of materials, images, archives, signs, but you know how to get out something new from them, not only to quote them...
LK: Thanks, that's high praise. I'm glad my work speaks to you so eloquently. I understand some of what you're describing as a crucial element of our time, that mass media and now electronic culture, has certainly made media absorption a significant part of daily, urban life throughout my lifetime. I have a necessity to grapple with what I've absorbed as do many others. My ability to project my thoughts and experiences into my source materials via the moving image is crucial to creating what you're experiencing as a viewer of my work.
When I was 15 I read Black Elk Speaks which was an oral biography of a mystic Sioux Medicine Man who was Chief Crazy Horse's cousin. He was at the Battle of the Little Bighorn and toured with Buffalo Bill to Europe among other highlights.
Black Elk describes in great detail his various visions. Many center around horses as these were essential animals in the Sioux lifestyle. In my urban and suburban world, horses and Buffalo didn't figure. In my world, horses had been replaced by cars as a mode of travel. But I could recognize a correlation between Black Elk's ability to name different horses and my ability to name types of cars or pop songs on the radio.
So for me naturally, as I convey the mythic understanding of the world I inhabit, the latter figured prominently.
The Nimbus Trilogy, that you site above, works to illuminate change through repetition. Just like the so called structural filmmakers who preceded me (Frampton, Snow, Landow, Gottheim) I am posing perceptual riddles for my viewers by presenting a complete 8 minute film (Nimbus Smile) which is then followed by a film (Nimbus Seeds) of the same duration with the same image sequence but an entirely different soundtrack. In the third and concluding film (Cumulonimbus) the sound track from the second film repeats while the image sequence completely changes. These recombinations evoke different stories and meanings in each of the films.
TD: Can I say that your animation/collage is a way to challenge the idea of private property, ownership, Identity (present like identity and identity like present), a way to continue to keep open the “conversation”, a sort of endless entertainment, as Blanchot said, or dissémination (Derrida)?
LK: Yes appropriation is both a way to question ownership and issues of copyright as well as artistic authorship. As a collage artist I am both collaborating with my source materials by both changing them and leaving them intact. For me the necessity to work with what I have absorbed outweighs my interest in respecting the capitalist boundaries established by copyright law which are mostly concerned with profit and a price structure that I don't have the financial resources to participate in. To me there is the obligation of the mass source materials in question and their responsibility after ingestion by the culture which is something copyright law doesn't respect, takes for granted and/or overlooks. Collage and appropriation is part of the culture's digestion process. I am of the firm belief that such cultural digestion is necessary for the culture to stay psychically healthy.
Similarly with artistic authorship – as a viewer and a maker, it is less important for me who invents or originates something then which artists bring it to life.
TD: Do you see something new and interesting in the current landscape of experimental film, moving images, etc., related to your work (animation/collage)?
LK: I am more interested in what I find interesting and stimulating then what is new. But there are many younger artists whose work excites me and I'm in dialogue with. To name a few: Jodie Mack, Ben Rivers, Ben Russell, Fern Silva, Stephanie Barber, Karen Yasinsky, Inger Lise Hansen, Blake Williams, Mary Helena Clark, Laida Lertxundi and Michael Robinson.
TD: When you started to work it was with “film”, now, for several years, you are working in video. What's the difference and how it has changed your work? You know, many people are talking of death of film or cinema...
LK: Cinema to me is not the material of film itself but all the different aesthetic ways and approaches filmmakers have of creating moving image pieces.
So for me it has not been a very large adjustment. I did wait to make the switch until I saw that digital video's resolution was equivalent to 16mm but now in the last few years it is more equivalent to 35mm.
Digital Video is different in very positive ways for me – my work is now capable of being shown to much larger audiences via streaming and in theatrical spaces with my intentions still visible and clear. Often when I worked in Super 8 and 16mm my finished films were somewhat dark and didn't project that successfully even in a small space. For instance the first time I was included in the Whitney Biennial in 1991 the super 8 films I was screening had to be screened with my projector in the room to convey their color successfully. The room was very small, but it was still too long a throw for a super 8 projector for the intensity of the color I had photographed to be visible if the projector had been placed in the booth.
Digital video enhances texture which is also very good for my work. It is very clean and detailed and while this might be a bit of a limit for live action shooting, since I'm shooting my analog source materials, they tend to provide a kind of dirt and grit that has some of the feel of analog and the film stocks of 16mm.
Shooting, editing and printing Digital Video is less expensive then shooting super 8 even was. This has made me very very prolific which has greatly re-invogorated my aesthetic. Making a feature length work is no longer a major financial investment.
Where Digital Video is precarious, a huge step backwards and ongoing challenge, is in archiving finished work and working to keep it current with all the tech upgrades which come at an unbelievable rate of speed- 3 years is a lifetime. In contrast traditional film has remained virtually the same technically for the past hundred or more years. Film Stock if properly stored can last for many decades, hard drives unfortunately can not.
TD: About death... Watching April Snow, I thought of a mixture of Dali (watches) and Ruscha (cars), it's also a voyage into a great american myth: the car, from fordism and its ideology to On The Road, a symbol for the consumer society but also for dreams: dreams of family to get economical safety, dreams for young people to escape and live an experience... The drive experience was important for artists too: Tony Smith, Ed Ruscha... Today the road seems to be replaced by the eletronic-virtual road, can I ask you what do you think of that?
LK: Above I talked about cars and their mythic importance to the world I live in and Black Elk the Sioux Medicine Man. I'm glad that April Snow was able to send you off into such an extensive associational revery about all those larger connections, however, I undertook it with a more specific mythology of aging in mind – that place in young adult hood where one can feel forced to choose between the love of ones youth and more grown up responsibilities. It's a kind of moment that many experience as a death in life. I was thinking of my dear late friend, the great filmmaker Mark Lapore, who was very interested in this kind of moment where things are in transition.
TD: Last question: how do you do your films? I mean, I am asking you as if I was a naif. If someone did not know anything of collage and animation, how would you explain your work to them?
LK: My films are very simple to create technically. I work with a digital still camera set up on a tripod and compose my cutouts on a little table beneath the lens or on the floor of my garage studio (there's the car again! Or in this case, the repurposing of a space designed for one. In Los Angeles garages are very important spaces for much creative activity that doesn't involve cars). The cutouts are illuminated by mostly a single light source – a 250 watt, 3200 Kelvin balanced bulb.
Before I worked in digital, I had the same shooting set up with a 16mm Bolex or a super 8 camera. In my present digital set up, the imagery I photograph frame by frame, feeds into my computer where a wonderful animation program called Dragon organizes the individual frames into shots. All of this activity is stored on a hard drive. I edit on the computer, and am still using Final Cut Pro 7, although that will have to change next time I upgrade my computer.