Cinematic Surfaces

January 12 – February 4

This group of works reckon with the very language and materiality of cinema itself, often reflectively looking at their own construction and “filmness” as the object of investigation. In these works we see the mechanical and physical features of film laid bare–sprocket holes, scratches, frame lines–in addition to radical transformations in traditional techniques related to editing, continuity, and story-telling. What a viewer expects to see is often missing or upended (intentionally so), inviting us to re-evaluate how we ascribe meaning to these images and to understand them in a new light.

1: Ja’Tovia Gary / An Ecstatic Experience

An Ecstatic Experience pulls together an array of historical and contemporary sources to explore the different ways Black Americans have resisted and sought to transcend systematic oppression. Beginning with images of churchgoers gathering to hear the sermon of a charismatic preacher intercut with dynamic, abstract animations, the work shifts into a dramatic monologue performed by actress and civil rights activist Ruby Dee. Dee’s performance, which originally aired as part of the 1965 TV miniseries History of the Negro People, recounts an episode from the life of Fannie Moore (b. 1849), an enslaved woman who witnesses her mother experience spiritual transcendence in the face of horrific circumstances and acts of violence. Gary augments the original footage by meticulously scratching halos and other patterns into the film itself, intensifying Dee’s performance while also drawing parallels between the physical qualities of the celluloid and the brutal histories of violence it documents. The latter half of the film features interview footage with Assata Shakur, former-member of the Black Liberation Army, in addition to a montage of scenes from History of the Negro People and 21st-century footage of protests in different communities following the killing of Black people by the police. Threaded throughout the work is the strong spirit of resistance and resilience against on-going oppression and subjugation, depicting the ways Black Americans have fought against these forces through religion, political activism, and community building. It explores the ways archival materials have captured these stories while expanding the ways the film material itself can serve as a canvas for ecstatic, transcendent experiences.

Watch more episodes of the History of the Negro People miniseries (1965) and Ruby Dee’s full original performance (Episode 3, begins at 20:18) via The American Archive of Public Broadcasting

Learn more about Ja’Tovia Gary’s work by visiting the artist’s website.

An Ecstatic Experience (2015, Ja’Tovia Gary, 16mm film and other video sources transferred to digital video, 06:11)

2: Akosua Adoma Owusu / White Afro

A collision of many different audio, visual, and textual source materials, White Afro presents a complex perspective on beauty standards and cultural appropriation. Using an instructional film produced by the Barbers, Beauticians and Allied Industries International Association, a labor union of hair-stylists, as the primary visual source, Owusu weaves the original narration of the film (which instructed hair-stylists how to achieve the iconic Afro hairstyle on white patrons) with a recording of the filmmaker’s Ghanaian mother discussing her experiences working at a predominantly white hair salon in Virginia called “Fantastic Sam’s.” A quote from Toni Morrison punctuates the middle of the film, highlighting the tension between culturally-pervasive, Anglo-centric beauty standards and the appropriation of the Afro, a hairstyle historically associated with Black identity and collective resistance in the US. By combining these elements, Owusu confronts the original film’s commercial aspirations with her own heritage and experience as a first-generation Ghanaian-American.

Read this curatorial essay from the Wattis Institute at the California College of Art for a more detailed analysis of Owusu’s work

Learn more about the work of Akosua Adoma Owusu by visiting the artist’s website.

White Afro (2019, Akosua Adoma Owusu, 16mm film transferred to digital video, 06:09)

3: Raphael Montañez Ortiz / Cowboy and “Indian” Film

A contemporary piece to Bruce Conner’s canonical found footage film A MOVIE (1958), Montañez Ortiz’s Cowboy and “Indian” Film is far more radical in both its creative methodology and audio-visual style. To create the film, Montañez Ortiz took a 16mm print of the Hollywood Western Winchester ‘73 (dir. Anthony Mann, 1950), a film in which the white actor Rock Hudson dons “red-face” to play a Native American character, and hacked it to pieces with a tomahawk in order to “release [its] evil.” He then performed a ritual exorcism on the film by placing the 16mm fragments into a medicine bag, chanting war songs, and splicing together disparate pieces in different orientations to create an entirely new “Western.” This process, inspired by the filmmaker’s Yaqui heritage, can be interpreted as “an act of revenge meted out against decades of Hollywood misrepresentations of Native Americans.”* This violent, ceremonial process would be echoed in Ortiz’s later, pioneering work in the artistic movement of “Destructivism,” which includes other films and a series of well-known piano destruction performances. Cowboy and “Indian” Film represents a counterpoint to other more traditional, meticulous forms of editing and “repurposing” moving images in that it involves not only an intellectual reworking of the source material but also an element of “spiritual catharsis”** and a purely physical, expressive response to the historical and on-going injustices against Native Americans.

*From Jesse Lerner’s analysis of Ortiz’s work in Ismo, Ismo Ismo: Cine Experimental en América Latina / Ism, Ism, Ism: Experimental Cinema in Latin America (2017)

– If you are an FSU student or faculty/staff member, you can checkout this book from Strozier Library

**From the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College’s Arqueologías de destrucción / Archaeologies of Destruction, 1958-2014 exhibition (2015)

Read Montañez Ortiz’s seminal Destructivism: a Manifesto (1962) and watch a full “piano destruction” performance from 2014.

Want to watch the original Winchester ‘73 (1950)? Find out where you can stream it!

Cowboy and “Indian” Film (1957-58, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, 16mm film transferred to digital video, 02:25)

4: Jennifer Proctor / A MOVIE by Jen Proctor

In editing together a diverse set of clips from YouTube and LiveLeak, Jen Proctor re-imagines Bruce Connor’s seminal found footage film A MOVIE (1958) for the digital era. In the 1958 original, Conner assembles clips from newsreels, westerns, soft-core pornography, travelogues, and other sources to create a dizzying procession of images depicting the triumphs and follies of the human experience. Depicting a wide scope of activities—from bombs dropping to cars crashing to bridges collapsing—A MOVIE splices together a tapestry of our collective fears, desires, and aspirations culled from popular culture, re-presenting them to the audience in a provocative and, at times, unsettling manner. Proctor, in an almost shot-for-shot remake, carries this method into the 21st century and explores how these historical and visual icons have both evolved and remained the same over the intervening decades. Proctor’s A MOVIE sources materials from the deep well of video content offered by the online world, commenting on the pervasiveness of material available for re-appropriation and how this ever-expanding flow of information continues to reflect the fears, desires, and aspirations of contemporary society—all of which are now funneled through social media channels, streaming video, and a global network of interconnected digital devices.

Watch Conner’s original side-by-side with Proctor’s remake to see these works in direct dialogue with each other.

A MOVIE by Jen Proctor (2010-2012, Jennifer Proctor, digital video, 11:45)

5: Peter Tscherkassky / Outer Space

The disturbing visual world of Outer Space is immersive, yet also intimate, highly warped and fractured. Taking scenes from the 1982 super-natural horror film The Entity as its sole source material, Tscherkassky’s methodical practice of frame-by-frame contact printing in a dark room (i.e. laying the original 35mm materials over unexposed raw film stock and using various light sources to expose the images in different ways) creates multiple layers of other-worldly and psychedelic superimpositions, jittering movement, and flashes of the film’s own physical features (sprocket holes, splices, etc). The effect of these formal and optical experimentations is an image, literally and figuratively, bursting out of its own frame and creating a heightened sense of psychic distress channeled by the film’s protagonist (actress Barbara Hershey). In the original 1982 film, Hershey portrays a character based on the real-life case of Doris Bither, a single-mother living in Los Angeles who, in 1974, reported that she was being stalked and sexually assaulted by an invisible evil spirit. Tscherkassky’s re-working of this source material hones in on the unnerving potential for violence lurking in seemingly quiet, domestic spaces while tethering the material destruction and manipulation of the original film’s images to the physical and psychological degradation of the protagonist. With this blurring of the film’s physical qualities with the unsettling images on-screen, the barrier between Hershey’s “outer” space and “inner” torment seems to dissolve away. She becomes trapped in a collapsing, hallucinatory world fighting for her own life and sanity amidst an increasing onslaught of violence and destruction.

Want to watch the original The Entity (1982)? Find out where you can stream it! You can also check out the trailer.

Read more about Outer Space in Senses of Cinema and cléo: a journal of film and feminism

Outer Space (1999, Peter Tscherkassky, 35mm film transferred to digital video, 10:26)

6: Evan Meaney & Amy Szczepanski / Big_Sleep™

Big_Sleep™ is a documentary and poetic essay-film taking place entirely within the space of the artist’s computer desktop. Multiple windows open to display video clips, text, images, and software, often overlapping and drawing the viewer’s attention to multiple places at once. The work explores the “archival urge,” or the collective desire to indefinitely preserve the films, photographs, documents, and other objects which constitute a record of the past, and the many challenges related to sustaining these collections in museums, archives, and other collecting institutions. Using the work of William Birch, one of the most prolific newsreel cinematographers of the 20th century, as a kind of case-study, Big_Sleep™ surveys the efforts of archivists to preserve motion-pictures using digital technology and reveals the inherently melancholy and existential nature of this labor. Through multiple voice-overs with experts in the field and the use of archival audio, viewers hear explanations of preservation and digitization processes alongside intimate recordings made between Birch and his family, infusing the technical challenges of preservation with a dimension of humanity and strong emotional themes. The paradox of digitization—that it both increases access to archival materials but puts it at great risk of loss due to file corruption and technological changes—begs questions related to how and if future generations will be able to access materials from our current moment and how “found footage” filmmaking will persist.

Additionally, as part of their larger project exploring archival practices, Meaney and his collaborators developed the Big_Sleep™ Media Encoder, a tool for preserving digital data in a permanently stable but permanently inaccessible file-format. This piece also serves a “software demo” of this process wherein the clips shown are also being encoded into this format.

Learn more about the larger Big_Sleep™ project by visiting the artist’s website

Big_Sleep™ (2015, Evan Meaney & Amy Szczepanski, digital video, 27:44)

7: Michael Fleming / Tik-Tak

Michael Fleming’s jarring tour-de-force takes its title from the film’s final image—that of a cartoon clock “ticking” as it counts away seconds in a steady rhythm. The work itself is concerned with the inevitable passing of time and the existential weight we all carry in knowing we have a limited amount of it in this world. Cut together from a wide array of cinematic sources—feature films and trailers, educational films, commercials, discarded film leader, and home movies, just to name a few—Fleming’s work loosely follows the course of a human life from birth to childhood to maturation to death, with its flurry of images evoking the physical, emotional, and psychological facets of each phase of life. Moreover, the physical qualities of its 35mm and 16mm film source materials are on full display, showing the framelines, sprocket holes, soundtrack, physical deformations, and other artifacts of the film-objects Fleming and collaborator Onno Petersen have scanned to create the work. This foregrounding of the source films’ materiality further emphasizes the visceral and immediate nature of the work’s themes. Aaron Michael Smith’s discordant musical score further accentuates this sense of unease and distress, crescendoing in a sequence in the work’s latter half depicting portrait photographs in varying states of decay, intercut with images of maggots, crime scene photographs, and other momento mori. Ultimately, Tik-Tak is itself a kind of collective portrait of the human experience collaged from many different forms of visual materials. It reminds us of these materials’ own existential fragility and, concurrently, our own.

Learn more about the work of Michael Fleming by visiting the artist’s website.

Tik-Tak (2020, Michael Fleming, 35mm and 16mm film transferred to digital video, 12:06)

8: Nicolas Provost / Gravity

A hypnotic and at times dizzying journey through cinematic romance, Gravity does seem to pull the viewer into itself. Using as its source material kissing scenes from many different American and European classic films of the 20th century, Provost weaves them together into a stroboscopic, otherworldly new dimension where bodies and spaces seem to converge and undulate out of the frame. Working with the optical principle of the “after-image” (also known as “persistence of vision”), the highly concentrated editing of Gravity plays with our brains’ ability to distinguish between different images alternated in rapid succession. The result of this visual phenomenon can be seen throughout Provost’s film, where faces, limbs, lips, and settings from across these well-known scenes radically blend together to create new formal compositions and suggest new ways of viewing them. In cutting together these intimate moments Provost appears to be commenting on the formulaic use of stock tropes and techniques for capturing these scenes on film while also celebrating a renewed appreciation of their legacy. Familiar faces become blurred together in a continuous stream, suggesting their established presence in our collective understanding of love and romance.

Learn more about Nicolas Provost’s work by visiting the artist’s website.

Gravity (2007, Nicolas Provost, digital video, 06:33)

9: Naomi Uman / Removed

At once a satire of the “male-gaze” and a meticulously crafted work of feminist art, creating Removed involved the filmmaker taking a 35mm print of a dubbed European soft-core pornographic film from the 1970s and, frame-by-frame, chemically erasing all images of women’s bodies using nail polish and bleach. The resulting abstract, undulating blob where the female body used to reside on-screen (Uman refers to this as an “animated hole”) continues to interact with different male performers, an absence that, as Gregory Zinman notes*, “denies [the] heteronormative masculine pleasure” that the original film seeks to elicit. Further, by using nail polish as an agent of erasure—a beauty product originally designed to “enhance” women’s appearances—Uman further critiques the underlying standards of beauty applied to women and their resulting representations in film and the media. Additionally, in retaining the original lewd, English-dubbed soundtrack alongside the altered images, Removed also highlights the suppression of the female voice while bringing the lascivious, absurd male voices into stark relief. The final work is both a comical, clever subversion of the original pornographic film and larger statement about the agency of women both on and off the screen. 

Read more about how Naomi Uman created Removed by reading an interview with her in the Millennium Film Journal 

*See Gregory Zinman’s entry on Naomi Uman in Making Images Move: Handmade Cinema and the Other Arts (2020)

Removed (1999, Naomi Uman, 35mm film transferred to digital video, 06:38)