Media Practices: The Moving Image, Mondays, FVNM 2000, Spring 2010

Instructors Lori Felker & Melika Bass

Our Film Video New Media Department’s “Media Practices: The Moving Image” course introduces students to the language and history of the moving image as well as a variety of media making methods.  It is the gateway course to the department, often serving as the students’  first exposure to media studies/making. We began our semester with some readings:

Roland Barthes’ “Leaving the Movie Theater”
David Antin’s  “Video: The Distinctive Features of the Medium”
John Baldessari’s “TV (1) is Like a Pencil (2) Won’t Bite Your Leg”

This post is an open space for our class to react to these readings.  The class has to directly answer the questions below, but anyone is welcome to jump in and add to the discussion, respond to comments, or depart on a tangent.

To start it off, here are some questions… (answers should total at least 200 words)

1. Out of these three articles, highlight one statement/idea you DON’T agree with.  WHY? Give evidence from your own experience or another text/work to support your claim.

2. Choose another statement that forced you to change your mind/ see something differently. How so?  Explain…


How do we engage with a subject by using a camera?  What do I mean by engage? In September I traveled to Uganda to help a friend shoot a documentary (www.frmichaelschildren.com).  Since I’ve been back, I’ve talked to individuals and classes about my experience in this country, and the politics, climate, attitudes, people, media, and landscapes I encountered.  But what about my “job”?  What about that camera that stood between me and the world most of the time?  What was it about my experience that was unique because of my position behind and with the camera?  Aside from some b-roll, interviews and events recorded for random jobs, this was my first real foray into documentary filmmaking, and my first extended time period, almost three weeks, to dedicate to capturing a world.  And I’m curious as to how it all functions, even after the fact, how I can dissect and understand my role in that experience.

In general, I suppose you could say that our team knew what we were going to shoot (interviews, a hit list of significant buildings and events, b-roll), and that that list got tighter and a bit more inspired as the days went on and we grew more aware of the place.  But the question of what “I” was going to shoot (and why) always remained.  I was working with a Director/Producer who trusted and knew me, so she wasn’t looking over my shoulder every second, she had her own jobs to do.  So I knew, that that elusive perfect frame was what I would always be looking for, like finding a quote on a page, or a glance from a crowd.  I’m in the right place at the right time, now how do I prove it?  How do I even begin to navigate it?

Looking back, I have to say, that at first I felt like a large scale artist, the mural painter, the landscaper, the draftsman, one who silently backs up from the object, looks around, waits, and then steps forward to begin the detailed, solipsistic rendering of a single, but inherently pluralistic object/world.  I was in a 360-degree space, with smells, textures, sound, minute and grandiose movements.  And from the moment I arrived, my framer had to be turned on, looking for rectangles that wanted to be seen and re-seen, that could continue to live and perhaps would thrive in the 2D space I had to offer.

How do we begin (most likely on the spot, in a hurried moment, people waiting, clocks ticking, light changing, things moving) to figure out what is representative, eye-catching, fascinating.  I could end this now by saying it’s all a gut reaction to what I see before me, that gut rooted in experience and training, but that answer bores me, and so, I continue.

The first place for me to start was realizing that my feet were on new soil, that things, although familiar, due to a shared planet, species and hierarchy of needs, were fresh to my eyes, rearranged, under a different part of the sky.  Secondly, I had to come to terms with the fact that I’m a hired photographer AND I’m a photographer anyway.  That is to say, yes, I’m here for a reason and have a job to do, but this is also how I think and like to think, I exist in step with my chosen artform, my way of looking at the world.  It’s not just a technical professional, or even just my crutch or my therapy for that matter, it’s my normal mode of operation.  This “job” however was my ticket to exploration and obsession, deflecting the shyness I might have regarding my camera-like perception and the worries of missing something “real” because i’m behind the camera all the time (yes, that age-old thought).


There I was.  I immediately started to absorb and collect the details, warm pebbly reddish clay ground, tinted light bouncing off of brilliant blue painted shutters and walls, dusty running feet,  countless broad green banana tree leaves, and friendly, curious eyes, blinking in a sea of rich smooth skintones.  All of these parts would certainly find their cameo behind or with my subjects.   But what is surfacing as critical in these panoramas? What should I keep my eye on? In a moment, my eyes vaguely answered: subject and subtext, motion and quiet,  light and color, texture and depth, graphic structure.  Vague, of course, but getting somewhere.

I start to play tag to find the images.  My turn first: I spin and tilt and pan waiting to find that certain rectangle in the crowd.   Tag, your turn.  I stand, eyes away from camera and you illuminate yourself make yourself noticeable in the wide picture.  You tag me and I chase after you again.

We’re at a primary school most of the time, walls and gates providing a clear perimeter.  I could see that this walled-in community was an incredible production stage, a living set constantly and continually ebbing and flowing.  Things match, patterns emerge, the light from an expansive sky with almost no electric competition, is used to this place, it knows what to do.  It was staged and playfully hard, outlining its own shot choices for me… but the next day it would be incredibly soft, denying its source and focusing on color, most often the softest pale blue like a light watercolor wash over the entire school.

In this light, I look for things to converge and swell, to make their way towards the camera, for the two eyes to lock…  or perhaps I set up a non-dynamic, but attractive frame and I wait for a performance, and perhaps in that limited space, that zoomed in world, the slightest hand gesture, a simple walk from the gate to the playground, can be a powerful dance with the elements, a tipping of emphasis, a surprise and a welcome expectation.  In my attempt to explain shooting, I see that it’s all quite personal and poetic, perhaps a bit obvious, until I turn around…

…and I realized that while I was adjusting, assimilating, poising myself to watch, I was being watched right back.  Those eyes put a spotlight on my stage, and now I notice that I’m performing too, my eyes squinting, my hands in their right places, tickling the camera, my backside, pushed out, legs often comically holding me up as the 4th and 5th legs of the Greater Tripod.  And this, what I looked like, became a part of my role here as well.  Whether I was out with the HD “powerful machine” (as noted by one of the teachers), my lightweight Super8 camera or a discreet point and shoot, I often gathered a bit of an audience.  They were interested in it, not really in what I was shooting, but what I was doing.  I was a dancer in the landscape for them, and they didn’t just want to watch from the audience, they wanted to be on stage with me and help me get my leg up on that barre.

In the single frame...

When I was out with the super 8 camera,  I would get caught fumbling around, shooting the dirt, and the students would find it quite humorous.  So, as they gathered, I felt increasingly nervous and reached for a way to diffuse this attention.  I decided to let the kids shoot, I’d show them how, and let them pass the camera around.  They got quite excited and lined up, shouted out, and reached for the camera.  After a while, I did notice though that many of them only wanted to look through the viewfinder, to see how i saw.  They didn’t even seem to care what the camera was pointed at, rather what it felt like to see that way.  To cover one eye, to hold this object, to rotate the hips, to pause and stay steady.

Then what was most remarkable, was that this experience was totally opening up my relationship with the camera.  Watching them mimmic what I had been doing was showing me that I wasn’t just there to record pretty pictures.  In the much larger picture, backing up further from the mural, I could see that I was there to play the role of the photographer, and that by sharing this activity with them, I would be able to experience more in this space, to focus on be-ing there, which the gift of seeing then merely follows.

Now I’m activated and I have so many thoughts, so many questions:  Should I take more chances?  Run over to the bunny cage like they did… despite the darkness?  What does this camera do?  Is it threatening? Is it funny? Is it just so “cool” it doesn’t matter? That the object itself is so precious and fascinating, is that why we want to be captured by it?  Being recorded is an engagement with the toy and its owner.  The camera as a conversation piece, but in some ways, a “so what?” . . . let’s just see what this can do.  Is your image a part of you and must be stolen or given away or is it merely a by-product of the action of a camera, a machine that clicks away because we tell it to? Does the image even exist if we never see it again? Who cares? I’m here now and we’re playing now.

All of this recording is not just a recording, it’s an activity: a public, communal, performative, silly, serious, charming, activity.  A nun stands closely, rests her hand on my waist, holds a thorny rose branch out of the way and looks over my shoulder into the viewfinder to watch the framed interview unfold.  Primary school children between classes form a large circle so they can pass an old Super 8 camera around with some semblance of order…the giggling circle collapses after 1 minute–  after all, we are on a playground.

Switching places

The documentary crew is asked to dance at the assembly, so the gear goes into trusted hands.  A teacher zooms and pans wildly, while also looking quite professional and ernest during his first try as a documentary filmmaker.    We played together, we danced together, I watched them in class, they watched me take pictures of them in class.  I told them how beautiful everything was, they agreed.   I know all of this to be true, thanks to the fact that I was shooting, and not necessarily because of what I shot.

A documentary will come of this and I am very pleased with and excited by its aims and its potential.  But I’m also ecstatic to say that I received a gift of great revelation and encouragement from the people I met and worked with in Uganda that will forever effect that way that I shoot.

Oli mukwano gwange.

-Lori Felker

Chicago is a city with a constant ebb and flow of independent and alternative spaces for art — when one closes down, another springs up, phoenix like, in its place. But rarer that the multiple apartment galleries and show spaces is an alternative venue for cinema. Over the past few years, this has been gradually changing. Outside of the pantheon of cinema projects and forums connected to Chicago’s universities (such as the Eye & Ear Clinic at SAIC, University of Chicago’s Experimental Film Society and Doc Films, and the Block Cinema at Northwestern) past exhibition projects have ranged from the staunchly academic Chicago Cinema Forum, which featured screenings of foreign rareities and lost films in 16 and 35mm, to mobile screening projects like Bike-in Cinema, where well-known cult classics were screened in backyards and on rooftops during the summer months.

The Nightingale opened April 4 2008. Started by Christy Lemaster, who has programmed for Chicago Cinema Forum, the Chicago Underground Film Festival (CUFF) and the Onion City Experimental Film and Video Festival, the cinema screens a range of film, video and new media works and has hosted nights of CUFF and Onion City film festivals and special events such as the Express Media Express series of new media workshops for children co-organized by LeMaster, Jon Cates, Nicholas O’Brien and others.

The films and videos are brought in from US and international distributors and local filmmakers, and there is a strong emphasis on supporting local curators and programmers, such as White Light Cinema, an independent curatorial project of longtime Chicago Filmmakers programmer Patrick Friel. The programming itself is audience centric — more Amos Vogel than Jonas Mekas.  As a result, the Nightingale shows an eclectic mixture of current and vintage works of challenging and more accessible experimental film, video and new media alongside documentaries and independent features. Past screenings have included Michelle Citron’s feminist essay film Daughter Rite, short films by animator Lewis Klahr and Kim Longinotto’s documentary about Japanese female pro-wrestlers, Gaea Girls.

It can be difficult to cultivate an interest in experimental cinema, particularly in those who aren’t well versed in its dense history, and who feel alienated when faced with the often attendant snobbery of film experts. For this reason, Lemaster strives to have filmmakers present to talk about their films afterwards. I spoke with LeMaster about the ins and outs of running a space like the Nightingale. — Beth Capper

ExTV: Can you start by telling us a little about the other programming work you have done?

CLM: Most recently, besides the Nightingale, I have curated for Chicago Filmmakers, a tiny bit for Onion City and a few programs for Chicago Cinema Forum. I don’t really think of myself as programmer though. I have always been a producer of sorts; I am often involved in getting some project or another off the ground. I decided early in my 20’s that I wasn’t going to worry about making money or defining a specific art form I wanted to make a career out of. I am a bit distrustful of the idea of a career. It seems to suggest this constant linear progress that doesn’t really interest me. I am a much bigger fan of work- the task in front you- the thing that calls to be done right now. For most of my twenties I lived in Columbia, MO. I promised myself that I would just take the next years and throw myself into every project I cared about. It led to a nonstop activity across all sorts of mediums. I worked whatever jobs I had to stay afloat. I was the assistant director of a documentary festival called True/False for its first two years. I helped my friend Seth Bro and Alison Hunter run their visual art series, Garage Art. We made atypical spaces into galleries for a night- like garages and a cattle auction house, and outdoor spaces. I directed some large-scale musicals and some Shakespeare plays, I built big inflatable sculptures, I produced a children’s television series, and helped my roommates do house rock shows at The Ranch. I helped to find money and donations for almost all the projects I worked on. And I learned a ton. It was my own sort of art school only firmly grounded in the real world of needing to have an audience to make anything happen. And then I moved to Chicago because I got job working for the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival and I started to wonder what it would be like to try and do all of that stuff in a bigger city.

ExTV: When did you start The Nightingale? Who runs it? Where do your films come from?

CLM: The Nightingale opened on April 4 with a program by British filmmaker, Ben Rivers, and it was the result of a group effort by a lot of people. My roomate and I got the lease and kinda announced that we were interested in doing screenings. And then people just started stepping up to help us. For example our 16 mm projector is on long-term loan from, projectionist Jennifer Fieber, and our PA is on loan, from filmmaker, Ben Russell, and Patrick Friel, longtime Onion City programmer, helped us arrange our first show. My friend Celeste Neuhaus, painted the mural near the door. Ragtag, a microcinema in Columbia, sold us their old screen for cheap. My sister helped design the website. At the time I was working a corporate job and I just poured my entire tax return in buying all the other stuff we needed- like a video projector, folding chairs, a ladder, cables, screening rights etc. And people still help us out from time to time. Our friend James Bond salvaged me some movie seats for my birthday present this summer. The Nightingale is a community effort. I am the director of the space. I do program work that interests me, and I solicit and coordinate screenings from other programmers. I fund most of what the Nightingale needs by taking donations at the door and the rest I pay for out of pocket.

ExTV: Why did you want to establish the Nightingale?

CLM: For me there were a lot of different motivations. For the last few years, I have dreamed off an on about opening a cinema. I even met with a couple different sets of investors but couldn’t really make them value my broader vision of a cinema as a community space. When I moved to Chicago (I knew maybe two people who lived here) I felt an immediate absence of the rich artistic community I had in MO. So I went about trying to find a similar environment here and was super inspired by lots of little homegrown projects and spaces like The Ice Capades, Heaven Gallery, Lumpen, Green Lantern, and Roots and Culture among others. I think when The Ice Factory closed Chicago needed a new cinema-centric space to provide an option to emerging media-makers.

I think my personal sense of programming values accessibility to multiple audiences and is firmly grounded in the healthy fear of not having an audience. When I search out stuff to show I am often impressed by work that has both the artistic chops and a way for people outside of the experimental media world to feel engaged by it. And I believe strongly that it is a curator’s job to help their audience build the vocabulary within the medium to be engaged by work outside of their comfort zone. So the Nightingale shows a fair amount of challenging experimental film and video, but the schedule is punctuated with documentaries, or humorous experimental film, or contemporary video work that may be easier for your average movie-goer to decode than most of the experimental canon.

And when ever possible, The Nightingale provides context- by having the artist around to ask questions. I strive to do this because it is exactly the way I am growing to have a better understanding and appreciation of experimental film. Before four or five years ago, experimental film wasn’t even on my radar and now I am a bit bewitched by it. But I needed a space where I could watch a lot of it and feel comfortable asking questions and as importantly, I needed a few foothold pieces that interested me and helped me to feel included on these filmmaking methods and that the whole field wasn’t just some big exclusive scene I didn’t need to care about. I think building audiences outside of the academic world for experimental film is really important. Most people would benefit from being better steeped in moving imagery. It is very often the tool used most often to shape their ideas. And I think there a lot of regular movie watchers that long for something more complicated than the quirky narratives that now fill Landmark cinemas across the country. And they’ll probably be tempted to Netflix that stuff at home in their pj’s anyway.

I also consciously designed a presentation style at the Nightingale that is very invested in the actual act of movie watching as a communal event. We make pretty tickets for each program and we always hold a raffle before the screening (Thank you Robert Beck Memorial Cinema, Brooklyn) and we take a minute to tell the audience about other screenings they might like around the city- kinda all to illustrate: we are in this room together, we are going to watch something together. After this it will be part of our shared experience. The interactive nature that the Nightingale strives for also leads me prefer screening on celluloid (even though we show lots of video work). We screen film work on film whenever we can. Partly it’s about respecting the maker’s chosen format and it just fills the room better. I believe it is a better viewing experience for the audience. The analog whir of the projector places the experiential reality of light and image front and center. The physicality of film is really seductive to me. I love it because I can comprehend how it works; I can see that light from the bulb is shining through the passing celluloid creating the shuttered illusion that my eye reads as continuous motion.

ExTV: What do you think is different or unique about the film scene in Chicago compared to other cities?

I am enamored of Chicago’s film community. I think we have an outlet for every type of filmgoer. And it feels well connected to me. I don’t get a sense of things being overly competitive or snarky. I see a bunch of good folks doing what they can where they can. And most of it is powered by pure devotion to the art form. (I don’t see it making many folks a living.) One of my favorite local labors of love is CINE-FILE. It is a weekly email that highlights the best underground and independent screenings in Chicago. It was started by my friend Darnell Witt and even though he has moved to NYC, its 20+ volunteer writers still keep it up. Onion City’s Patrick Friel is now its main editor and Darnell still helps get it up on the web each week. I write for it when I have the time. I have learned so much from the boys and girls on that list serve. And a lot of them are just film enthusiasts not makers or programmers, but they consistently provide clever and funny perspectives on some really tough cinema. Ben Sachs, who volunteers as a ticket taker at the Gene Siskel, is a real stand out voice.

ExTV: Do you have an operating budget?

CLM: I do not have a formal operating budget. I use the money we make from one screening to fund the next one and whatever is not covered comes out of my pocket.

ExTV: How many screenings do you aim for per year?

CLM: I hardly ever think about it in those terms. I am happiest when there is at least one screening a week, but I am fine with having short dark periods when it is necessary. Then there are months where we have 6-8 screenings and it gets pretty hectic.

ExTV: What is The Nightingale’s mission?

CLM: I haven’t ever written a formal mission statement. My goals change as the space grows. The one consistent aim is to provide a venue for a diverse slate of good programs. I feel equally useful when we show the work of emerging makers/curators and when we present the work of established experimental makers. And I like to show the occasional crowd pleaser or an older movie recontextualized but so far we haven’t done as much of that.

ExTV: Who do you think is your main audience?

CLM: The audience is literally who-ever walks through the door. The make-up is always changing and I’m glad for that. There is a core group of Nightingale regulars, but they are regulars at all of the venues that usually show non-commercial fare.

ExTV: Do you consider your space an “alternative” space? Is that an important distinction?

CLM: The word “alternative” has no meaning left for me really. It has been a moniker for some many levels of stuff, commercialized and not, that it has no recognizable value anymore.

I am aware that certain programs might appeal to certain folks, and in publicizing screenings I work to make the people most likely to attend aware of the event, but I don’t put too much stock in the traditional theories of marketing. In the end it’s a crapshoot. In a city this large, there are too many factors at play to accurately guess what will improve attendance. I program what appeals to me and what the other regular curators bring forward and then we just let as many pertinent people as possible know about it. I don’t feel invested in getting a certain group of people to come here. The audiences that have shown up so far have been great.

The choice to remain “underground”, for lack of a less co-opted word, is a natural outgrowth of my personal politics. I enjoy working with folks who are operating outside of the traditional presentation system. Often there isn’t enough financial profitability in this arena to support all the infrastructure of legitimate business. It’s necessary to sustain other networks and economies and I feel our space benefits from that. The relationships this venue develops with people, artists and patrons alike, are strong ones, built out of a shared interest in the art. There is a vibrant film community in this city that seems to consider The Nightingale as one of its homes. That’s the best audience I can hope for.

Go here to see the Nightingale’s upcoming schedule.

In 1937, former Bauhaus teacher Laszlo Moholy-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus School in Chicago. The New Bauhaus was ultimately renamed the Institute of Design (ID), and became part of the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1949. The school was one of the first in the US to encourage experimentation in film, yet the works produced there remain relatively obscured from the history of US avant-garde and experimental film.

Amy Beste, SAIC faculty member and curator of Conversations at the Edge, is trying to change this. On October 1 and 2, Beste presented “Visions in Motion: Filmmaking at the Institute of Design, 1944-1970”, an event consisting of two programs that screened at the Gene Siskel Theater, showcasing works from the school. The work in these programs is eclectic: ID filmmakers used a variety of methods to produce stimulating, and cost efficient student films. Some artists produced cameraless animations, some employed methods of documenting the natural world in a unique way. For his film “DL # 2”, Larry Janiak coated film with rubber cement and exposed it, producing work that evokes the likes of Norman McLaren. For his film “Motions”, Harry Callahan utilized in-camera multiple exposure techniques to superimpose images of water over mundane b-roll footage. Yasuhrio Ishimoto and Marvin Newman’s “The Church on Maxwell Street” is a stunning black and white film that documents musicians playing to a predominantly African-American congregation on the street.

From how widely these works vary in terms of form and content it is clear that the school encouraged its students to take risks and flourish with the media.  Originally structured in the same format as the Bauhaus, the ID offered a preliminary course similar in structure to the first-year program at SAIC. “Initially, Beste says, “advertising arts, photo, and film students adhered to the rubric of the Light Workshop. Moholy pushed the medium of light as the root of film and photography.” Light was “the medium that drove those other iterations of the medium.”

Beste suggests that one of the reasons this history has been largely overlooked might have to do with access to national distribution. “In the mid- 1960s, inspired by Filmmakers Cooperative in New York and Canyon Cinema in San Francisco, a group of Chicago makers (a number of them, Institute of Design alumni) established the Center City Co-op which to distributed Chicago and Midwestern work.” She says. “The organization disbanded in 1976 and it seems that a number of folks did not place their work elsewhere, so that this whole period of works produced in Chicago just disappeared from circulation.   So, at a time when US ‘experimental film’ was being canonized, a number of Chicago filmmakers were literally out of circulation.”

Resources at the ID were limited and the artists embraced the challenges this presented. Wayne Boyer, who attended ID as both a bachelor and graduate student and who is now a Professor Emeritus at University of Illinois at Chicago, says that when he arrived at the school in 1955, “all of the film equipment was in storage and there was no one to teach it. But that was ok because of the experimental nature of the curriculum, where you were encouraged to combine media. This is what stimulated us.”

Hattula Moholy-Nagy, Laszlo’s daughter and scholar of her father’s work, confirms Boyer’s recollections. “When he [Lazlo] started the school, he couldn’t afford to pay any faculty. It was really a shoestring operation and it remained that way for about a year,” she says. “The school gradually took ground and started to work, then along came World War II.” However, even with several faculty members and students drafted, the scarcity of materials, and scarcity of funds, “Moholy managed to keep the school alive.”

The school was one of the first to emphasize experimentation as an effort to both create a body of work that would provide a counterpoint to and potentially revitalize commercial/mainstream movies and media.  “Janiak is a great example of this kind of training,” says Beste. “For many years he worked at Goldsholl studios (now largely forgotten, but at the time a nationally-recognized and important design studio in Chicago), where he, along with Wayne Boyer, was encouraged to apply his experiments to advertising and industrial films. The studio was headed by Mort and Millie Goldsholl who both were graduates of ID and directly applied the Bauhaus ethos to the work in their studio.  The work they produced ended up in trade shows, short commercial films, and in television ads for national distribution.”

Boyer and Janiak met at Layne Technical High School in Chicago in the 1950’s. Some of their instructors were former teachers from ID, and they inspired both of them to pursue film. One of their instructors from Layne Tech got Janiak and Boyer into conferences for designers in Aspen, Colorado. During their second conference in the late 1950s, Janiak met one of his biggest influences, who was also presenting films at the conference. “The Goldsholl’s we’re running it…Millie [Goldsholl] invited us to go to an ice cream parlor…we went, and then as we were walking there she said,’ Oh, by the way, I’ve asked Norman McLaren to come over. And so he showed up and we’re having ice cream sodas…” One of Janiak’s films that McLaren saw in Aspen was what Janiak calls, “an attempt at abstract film where I drew on blockout and the used Dr. Martin color dyes absorbed into the emulsion…It was abstract linear patterns. [McLaren] was a really sweet man…He did say, ‘You know, that’s one of the best films I’ve seen made in 16 mm.’ Well, that was a nice compliment but see, he did everything in 35 [mm]!”

Both Boyer and Janiak went on to study at ID for a period of time in the mid 1950’s. In 1968, Janiak secured employment teaching experimental film and design animation at the ID. In the Bauhaus tradition, Janiak allowed his students to have creative license, and encourage them to experiment. “My course structure was pretty loose,” Janiak says. “ I counted on the students to come up with their own ideas…Most of these students had never made a film before, and most of them never did again. There were some that went on commercially and experimentally, but nobody ended up famous or anything like that.”

One of the most unique things about the artists producing films at the ID is the fact that many of them sustained essentially two practices as filmmakers. “While there was a presence in Chicago of filmmakers who were pointedly anti-commercialism,” Beste says, “it seems to me that people had these dual careers: producing experimental films, and supporting themselves through the industrial film sector. Their experiments were happening in both arenas.”

Beste believes that a reassessment of avant-garde film history to include these works would produce quite a different picture of experimental film in the US.  “Chicago was a center for industrial and educational filmmaking, in fact, for many years, was considered the Hollywood of non-theatrical film. A number of ID faculty and graduates worked and applied their experimental vision to these industries.  Films produced in this industry were (and still are, to some extent) considered highly ephemeral.  Companies made them for a specific purpose — to teach a certain lesson, sell a certain product, explain a certain process.  Once that purpose was no longer current, many of these films (and their filmmakers’ experiments) were just thrown away.”

“It’s only in the last 15 years or so that scholars and historians have begun to examine these films as both historical artifacts and important aesthetic contributions to our broader media culture,” Beste continues. “I think looking at works produced within this system has the potential to change the way we think about the role of experimentation in media and the operation of the avant-garde in the US.”

This article was originally published in F Newsmagazine.


On November 30, Eye & Ear Clinic will host the work of animators Maria Lassnig and Martha Colburn.

From the Eye & Ear press release: “Although Lassnig and Colburn’s works are 30-years apart, they share many of the same concerns. These are in part political, as both demonstrate an engagement with feminism and gender politics, and the impact of culture in informing men and womens’ self-images, and partly in their creative processes, as both artists are largely self-taught. Through their uniquely offbeat approaches, Colburn and Lassnig bring something to the history of handmade animation that cannot be learned in a classroom.

Maria Lassnig is a painter and animator who made most of her films in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Her work employs a more direct register, exploring the friction between feminist politics and the desire for a romantic relationship (the personal and the political) and experimenting with bodily abstraction through a feminist lens concurrent with the time. Maya McKeachneay writes, “[Lassnig’s] unconventional films, made with stencil, watercolors or felt-tip pen; her blue-box performances, vocal numbers and split-screen experiments show even more clearly than her painting, the Carinthian artist’s sense of humor and enjoyment of experimentation.” Lassnig’s animations are unpretentious, and at times unabashedly sentimental; they are wry and hilarious. Although her work has received more attention in recent years in the USA, her film work is still relatively obscure. This is the first time Lassnig’s animations will screen in Chicago.

Martha Colburn’s work is equally feminist, but more complex, fusing scathing political critique and pop cultural assemblage with humorous and terrifying explosions of gender binaries, through live action (paint-on-glass) animations, found footage and documentary filmmaking techniques. Her films fuse incendiary classical scores and frenetic editing; they are disorientating–a battlefield strewn with the bloody fragments of received history and ideology. Jonas Mekas writes, “bordering on the outrageous, crackling frame energy, Martha Colburn’s films are naked testimonials of our times, and of her generation.”

Refracted Lens is a film series committed to exhibiting cutting-edge and underrepresented film, video, and new media work, organized by grad students in Art History/Arts Admin Beth Capper and Kelly Shindler.


ExTV is currently hosting a solo exhibition of SAIC Film, Video and New Media alum, teacher and curator Jodie Mack, known for her colorful cut-out, stop-motion and hand-painted animations that re-use the imagery and patterns of contemporary craft, and dissect themes of domesticity, feminine ritual, and personal history. Mack’s abstract animations are like carefully choreographed synchronized swimming exercises where shapes intertwine and break free of each other in a flirtatious dance. Go here to view six of Mack’s animations.

An Interview with Jodie Mack

ExTV: Your animations oscillate between narrative and abstract. What do these two things do for you and why do you consider the abstract work to be important?

JM: I started out making the purely abstract stuff. When I started, I was concurrently falling in love with the history of pure, graphic animation and what it actually means when people say things like: “This stuff doesn’t mean anything, but I’m just fine with forms and textures just moving around.” Visual music analogies between hearing and seeing, formal algorithms, eye candy–I love all of that stuff. But, my major mentor when I was first figuring all of that stuff out asked us to think about what these things [abstract works] really are. Are they just pretty? What do they do in the world? He put that on our shoulders a little bit. You have to have form and meaning! (Or, rather, do you?) One part of me feels like pure graphic abstraction is an opposition to classic Hollywood themes in itself, just by rejecting the modes and the expectations. But, I took what my mentor said to heart. And, for a while, making more narrative work was a way of answering these questions for myself. In my thematic or more genre-based stuff, the stories or ideas have just been launch pads to work with materials. I really feel as though, a lot of the time, I’m kind of forcing abstract images to mean things by way of sound or editing or some other device…

ExTV: Would you ever be interested in making more mainstream or commercial animation?

JM: There’s a long-standing history of animators making their livings doing commercial stuff–even some of the most experimental animators. You know, Len Lye making commercials for the post office, Norman Mclaren working for the NFB, Frank Mouris doing titles, Adam Beckett or Larry Cuba working on Star Wars, etc., etc., etc. The thing with animating is that it is all practice, so I definitely don’t feel opposed to doing paid things here and there.

ExTV: Do you see yourself more as a contemporary artist or as a filmmaker?

JM: I think I have seen myself more as a filmmaker, although I just did some installation work. I definitely do a lot of stuff that is beyond my films – I make a lot of cards and I am doing a lot of collage, and studying songwriting. Some of the abstract work seems to actually make a lot of sense in a gallery setting, and it’s surprising that this is something that I’ve rarely done. I am also getting together a choir. I think it will be all-female, and I don’t think they will be singing words, more syllables, like tra la la – things like that. I want to do an album of full songs and have animations to accompany them. Coming, off of “Yard Work is Hard Work,” a musical I made that took two years, I feel a bit lost as far as composing. But, I want to experiment, and I like the idea of having more voices to play with. Who knows if this will be for a gallery or theater setting?