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.