One of the pleasures of encountering experimental film and video in a festival setting is the chance to get a survey, the lay of the land so to speak, rather than isolated gestures shared on YouTube or Vimeo. Organized as a series of seven programs by curator James Hanson, the juxtapositions between disparate films/videos present in the Light Matter Film Festival slate facilitate an ongoing conversation while highlighting formal rhymes, but also showcasing the wildly different ways in which artists approach the idea of the “image.” It’s a large selection of work, so consider the following a tentative starting place that only scratches the surface of what Light Matter has to offer.
Program 6 begins with The Floating Gardens, credited to the Colectivo Los Ingrávidos, a Mexican collective dedicated to providing a radical alternative to mainstream, commercial film in their native Mexico. Responsible for over 300 works since 2012, this newest film is labeled as “a vision from the ‘chinampas,’” or a floating artificial garden typically built for agricultural purposes. The film has been processed and printed so that multiple frames of the film strip are visible to viewers simultaneously, the images of assorted plants and foliage repeated at the top and bottom of the screen. The emphasis on the materiality of the film image itself places The Floating Gardens squarely as a modernist work, while the subject matter — grass, trees, etc. — suggests a productive tension between technology and naturalism.
Stained Night (Andrés Medina, Argentina) begins as pure abstraction, and gradually coalesces into a coherent shape; pockets of light flit across a dark screen, followed by barely perceptible shapes undulating like shifting sand. Colors begin to cohere, and gradually form themselves into identifiable objects — bodies, lights, a concert stage. Medina seems to be trying to capture the rapturous feeling of losing oneself in the crowd, bodies moving in unison to (unheard) music. Hands and arms and legs emerge from, then disappear back into, pools of light and color. At times, the film takes on an animated quality, as line and form dance across the screen. Stained Night is a brief but undeniably satisfying work.
More substantial, however, is Cellula Filia (Piibe Kolka, Estonia), an opaque memory piece that takes on the patina of a sci-fi film. Shot on a PXL2000 camera, AKA “pixelvision,” the images immediately recall certain works by Sadie Benning & Michael Almereyda (whom the director has collaborated with in the past). Kolka narrates via a voiceover that has been constructed out of stories told to her from family members, accompanied by cryptic images of a barren beach, empty rooms, and various scenes of a woman performing with a chair as a prop. The flat, lo-fi images suggest aged, black-and-white Polaroids, like ephemeral memories that one struggles to fully make sense of. A dense, delicate work, Cellula FIlia suggests Kolka as a very exciting new artist.
Another memory piece, Dream of Splendor (Getong Wang, China/USA) juxtaposes footage filmed in Chicago’s Chinatown with snippets from a 1962 Hong Kong film, The Magnificent Concubine. Here, the ornate pageantry of the film, a historical epic boasting lavish costumes, butts up against the quotidian reality of various storefronts, where Chinese history is mostly relegated to decorative posters and wall hangings adorning shop windows. It’s an interesting attempt at placing oneself inside history, although the film ultimately proves a bit too brief and insubstantial to register as a genuinely impactful work.
Refraction is a new work that Peruvian director Eduardo Gutierrez created by re-editing four of his own earlier films. The artist states that it is an “intersectional film that proposes unity based on new images.” It’s a noble effort, certainly, but also, in practice, perhaps too grandiose, as the film itself feels delicate and ephemeral; the image is fuzzy, slightly out-of-focus, the grain of what appears to be 8 and/or 16mm film clearly visible, along with scratches and other signs of physical wear and tear, everything emphasizing the materiality of the form. It’s hard to decipher any specific unity between the flashes of abstraction, the more diaristic footage, and brief snippets of black-and-white footage; one can only assume the earlier films were quite different in subject matter. But it does add up to a sort of impressionistic sensory overload, not unlike the works of Stan Brakhage. At the very least, it’s a lovely effort to look at, which is nothing to turn one’s nose up at.
FORMations (Jude Abu Zaineh, Canada/Palestine) offers a welcome burst of vibrant color after a number of monochromatic or otherwise muted works. Consisting of recordings of microscopic flora, food particles, and the assorted bacteria located in a petri dish, Zaineh looks to create a kind of symbolic symbiosis between all these various types of matter. The photography offers astounding potential on paper, but, in execution ultimately comes across as a series of undulating mandalas flatly perceived through a kaleidoscope filter. The work is done no favors by a sleepy, new-age soundtrack of soothing but generic tones. Chalk this up to a film where the process of creation is ultimately more interesting than the final product.
Elsewhere, Superfund finds the filmmaker Charles Cadkin documenting a chemical dumping ground near the West Chicago Community High School in West Chicago, IL. Images flit by at a rapid pace, a survey of a worn-out, run-down suburban landscape that still bears the markings of a former industrial waste zone. Cadkin creates double and triple exposures, superimposing various images and then displaying multiple frames within the image simultaneously. It reflects an attempt at finding the totality of a place; perhaps, of recovering somewhere otherwise forgotten. Within its exhibitional context, it paired nicely with Laura Kraning’s de-composition, both are essential works.
The Light Matter Film Festival website informs us that Konstantin (Hogan Seidel, USA) was shot on 16mm on a single 100-foot reel, which director Hogan Seidel then did multiple passes with. Triple exposing the same reel of film creates three layers of images, which Seidel also edited in camera, though the result here also suffers from a generic soundtrack, an electronic dirge that dictates mood instead of enhancing it. The footage is admittedly interesting enough, the layers of images occasionally identifiable but often morphing and merging into intriguing abstraction. Konstantin can even sometimes feel like a less aggressive Peter Tscherkassky film, slow and subdued instead of jagged and piercing.
Jagged and piercing, however, might be apt description for Reservoir (Micah Weber, USA). The film begins with a single, pulsating line that cuts vertically across the screen, gradually expanding to become a 3D screen shaped like an iPad, or perhaps an Etch-a-Sketch. The filmmaker describes Reservoir as “the politics of the slaughterhouse,” and the film indeed feels very much like a system beginning to break down. The screen displays archaic drawings and diagrams, before the image devolves into a collage of grids and architectural plans that are cut up and interrupted by splotches of abstraction, like a CAD program infected with a virus. The stark black-and-white video and ambient noise soundtrack, meanwhile, feel like a throwback to late-’90s industrial vibes, equal parts haunting and vaguely uncomfortable. There’s no denying it’s Reservoir is a notably odd work.
And then there’s Vision of Paradise (Leonardo Pirondi, Brazil), a kind of hybrid work, part essay film, part traditional talking head documentary, intercutting 3D computer modeling with ancient, hand-drawn maps to suggest a relationship between old explorers searching for mythical lands and the ever-expanding boundaries of images in the modern world. Artificial CGI landscapes appear and disappear with the click of a button, while old, handwritten topographical charts point to their own imaginary, hoped-for worlds.
And all of this adventuring represents only half of Program 6, which might give one an idea of just how expansive the offerings on display with Light Matter are. The festival’s programming represents a remarkable feat of organization, and anyone interested in the state of modern image-making should be falling over themselves to support this out-of-bounds corner of cinematic celebration.