lunes, 8 de agosto de 2011

Paolo Gioli - Quando l'occhio trema (1989)

Paolo Gioli - Color Works



Interview to Paolo Gioli

Paolo Gioli is one of the reference Auteurs of Underground Italian Cinema. He has experimented in his research on images and vision, painting, photography and cinema, deconstructing and often inventing techniques, reproduction and shooting methods ex-novo. The 45th “Mostra del Nuovo Cinema” (New Cinema Exhibition) in Pesaro, which is held between the 21 st and 29 th of June 2009, with a great homage dedicated to the Auteur with a film exhibition and a photographic exhibition, held in Palazzo Gradari in Pesaro, and the publication of a volume, curated by the Fondazione Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia (Centre for Experimental Cinema Foundation), are among the most recent celebrations of his work.
Paolo Gioli lands in film at the beginning of the 70's, passing through painting initially and later through photography. In cinema he finds instruments and linguistic characteristics with which he can build his own personal visual laboratory. A workshop made up of played and researched procedures, on the brink between the determination prior to the project, and error, the flippant provocation of chance. Gioli is an auteur not only in the sense of creator and developer of his own cinematography work but also as an experimenter and inventor of techniques and procedures. His relationship with technique is never technical, and never celebrates the medium as a medium per se. Technique according to Gioli is a standard procedure, an action of knowledge that in turn produces new and often unexpected knowledge.
Techniques like the pinhole camera, photo finish and stop motion animation are methods of research, channels through which he can explore the nature and functioning of light, vision and movement. Paolo Gioli dismantles the cinematographic language structures; moved by lively curiosity, he looks into mechanisms of cinema and tries to understand, steal and contaminate the functioning of that “black viewing box” that is the film camera. A research that the auteur learns through the history of cinema, a history he has made his own, through a practice and dexterity rich with knowledge, thanks to which Gioli has retraced, reproduced and reinvented the experiences of the fathers of cinema, which he learned from books.
Gioli himself reinforces this statement and connects his work to history, to pre-cinema, but at the same time, in a much less aware fashion and refusing every comparison with digital technology, Gioli anticipates contemporary hacking intended not only as a deconstruction of the instrument but also and mostly as a construction practice of a new meanings and knowledge through technology.

Claudia D'Alonzo: When did you begin to understand that the modalities of production and perception of cinema imposed by standardized production where too strict for you?

Paolo Gioli: I realised this through something that may seem banal but which was decisive: when I realised that I could not immediately control what I had just shot. If someone does research on images he must be able to immediately see the shots. Reading the history of cinema, I read the things that everyone had read but that evidently no other auteur had ever taken into consideration. I asked myself: how did the first people who made films develop them? At the time there was no laboratory: Meliés, Lumière, Edison did not go to a laboratory, they were their own laboratory. Cinema was created through them and they had found a way to develop their own things by themselves. And reading French texts on the history of cinema I found what I imagined to find. At the beginning there were bits that they threw into some development liquid and developed them like that, like a bowl of spaghetti, just to verify whether the material developed or not. Then they thought of building a can in which they rolled the film, they left it there soaking in a bucket, they waited 6 or 7 minutes, just as if they were developing film. Then they put it in water to wash it, they unravelled it and hung it out to dry. After having read these things I began to do the same.

Claudia D'Alonzo: So what interested you was controlling the development phase and print phase?

Paolo Gioli: Development is one thing. In development you see what you have done. When you have a negative you're alright, you edit the negative and as you go you accumulate 6 or 7 metres , you realise that everything changes. Everyone said to me: but cinema film is different, it's not like photographic film, it's different. I didn't believe them, so I bought some film, and I developed it as if it were any old photo film and I saw it was the same thing. Everyone was so obsessed with technicality... they all felt these technical barriers, complicated stuff full of secrets: it's so stupid. Film is film. In other words I had to do it myself and not listen to what other people said.

Then I realised that I could make a film from morning to evening! I would shoot a piece, if I liked it I would edit it, piece by piece, and so forth. Once I had finished I would print everything in a laboratory. I printed some pieces myself, I would make the positive with an old camera, I used it like Lumière did, he used the camera to shoot and print: you put the new film in contact with the developed negative, you shoot a white light, for example from a wall, and you impress the positive film. Which is what happens in the laboratory, the printer does exactly that. From then on I began working autonomously, even on duration. This notion that a film must last an hour and a half, derives from focus group tests on audiences, they noticed that spectators have had enough after two hours. This notion of an hour and a half created itself, it's an old story. But this is true for commercials too: if they are bad those two minutes are unbearable, if they're good you never want them to end.

Claudia D'Alonzo: Yes, but even in cinema there are functional parameters and standards in order to make an industrial product of mass consumption.

Paolo Gioli: For cinema this is really annoying. If you present a 2-minute film they define it as a little film. There are no little films, it's a film! It doesn't matter how long it is. These things irritate me.

Claudia D'Alonzo: What did you watch, what kind of movies interested you?

Paolo Gioli: I was not interested in cinema, I watched and have watched a lot of movies but I just didn't consider it. I liked Soviet cinema, all of the historic avant-garde. I remember presentations of films by Richter, in the Cavallino gallery in Venice . I saw those rectangles that moved on the screen, that painting... he was a painter. I said to myself: so I can do that too. I can transfer form onto film, it's not a betrayal, everything can be contaminated. So you can paint, make movies, and perhaps put the two together. This gave me courage. Thanks to avant-garde I understood that I could be free to do anything. Most of the New American Cinema was based on that, they were all Cocteau film enthusiasts, and perhaps they took the worst parts of his work. Americans have always been able to “watch” well. Just like they did with Pop Art, they saw Dadaism in Europe and transferred it to their reality - bravo. They knew how to do what had not been successful in France with Nouveau Realism. Americans are very good in taking and selecting the right culture and making it their own. But for cinema their references came from Europe , obviously, they couldn't come from anywhere but here.

Claudia D'Alonzo: Let's stay on the theme of film history and the influences on your work, what other films do you remember as being fundamental in your training, your knowledge of cinematographic language, amongst contemporary auteurs?

Paolo Gioli: Michael Snow for sure, with his film “Wavelength”. I think it's the most important film in the whole history of experimental cinema. I remember when I saw it for the first time in London , at the National Film Theatre; I was astonished, I immediately thought that I wished I had done that movie. Other films that I wished I could have done were the first Cassavetes films. But when I watched these films, instead of losing heart by comparing myself to them, they gave me strength. It was my own personal challenge against myself in order to be at the same level as those works of art. I thought that these auteurs had really expensive equipment, whereas I would just get a piece of wood, make a hole in it and make a camera.

Claudia D'Alonzo: How did you begin making your movies, working with film?

Paolo Gioli: It was in Rome , mostly thanks to my encounter with Alfredo Leonardi. At the time my experience with the Cooperativa del Cinema Indipendente (Independent Cinema Cooperative) was over, but I met him in Rome, along withMassimo Bacigalupo, Gianfranco Barruchello, Alberto Grifi. Alfredo helped me a lot, he gave me a lot of material, mostly American, because he had been to the States for a book for Feltrinelli. We were close friends, he slept in my study, there were a series of intricate private issues. He helped me a lot but in the Roman context things were running out. It was the time of the Brigatisti (brigades) and all the off-theatres, all those experiences that in Rome were outside official contexts were prosecuted as places of crime and for druggies. Many places were closed down, made to disappear and reshape a whole circuit because of the laws on terrorism and because of those bloody terrorists. A whole generation and period were absorbed by this, politicised and dispersed, or eliminated, a lot of centres disappeared, there was nothing more. Many others were integrated, they needed State funds. The institutions gave funding and in this way they neutralised some of those circuits that seemed dangerous because they were outside of the State. In this way a certain environment became dormant and lost. This happened in film too. There was a new wave of New American Cinema, and so Jonas Mekas was smart and, wanting the represent the whole world, he had work sent to him from Italy . Alfredo and the others got in touch with him and sent their films, which Mekas did not like at all, but he took them as a representation of Italian Underground Cinema, as he has often recollected.

Claudia D'Alonzo: You lived in two important contexts for the whole experimental cinema scene, New York at the end of the Sixties and Rome during the second have of the following decade...

Paolo Gioli: I wasn't making movies when I was in New York . At that time I was mostly drawing. I followed the circuit of little cinemas that showed these “forbidden” films, underground films. But from there I understood a lot of things. For example, wandering around the bay of New York at night, in quite dangerous places, by chance I saw a little cinema with a line of people outside. A lot of the people waiting in line were holding these little boxes in their hands, I just thought they were strange spectators. I sneaked inside too. I found out that those spectators were really auteurs and that the boxes where boxes of Super8 film. You didn't know what was going to come out of it, the people in line gave their films to the projectionist. At a certain point the police ruptured into the cinema, everyone out, turn everything off, identify everyone present. I had a tourist visa and was terrified.

Claudia D'Alonzo: So even in America there was not all this freedom that people imagine. When you read about that era it seems as though things were so simple, very free and shared, even in the management of spaces created in the most unthinkable places...

Paolo Gioli: No, all of Mekas's exhibitions were very organised, official. But then there were as many autonomous places, pontoons and barges where you could sleep too. There were film slide projections, mostly in Super8. Most of these were psychedelic films that implied the use of various substances during the course of the evening. I never used anything like that but all the possible substances available at the time were shared right in front of me.

Claudia D'Alonzo: In your work the presence of the body is very important, and is often accompanied by a reaffirmation of its decline, of death. Do you recognise this classic dualism of Eros-Thanatos in your way of perceiving the body and eroticism? I'm thinking of an example of a film of yours that is a homage to Marilyn...

Paolo Gioli: With regards the Marilyn the reaffirmation is quite direct, as she died tragically. In some images a scar can be seen on her body, a scar from an operation she had recently had. She had put a sign on those pictures, she didn't want them to be published. They were published soon after her death. So death was in the middle of that film, but it anticipated me. The subject of choice is merely by chance, taken from books, as for other works I have done. I often say that I animate ink, because the point is just this: if there's a sequence in a book you already have a movie. I like to look at a sequence of photos on a book and imagine it in movement, it's already in movement. You can give back the book, close it, you have a movie, something that moves. Sometimes I imagine that “Filmarilyn” can be a film that was never shot about her, about her death, that could have been found. What's in the book is a pre-animation, the sequence of pictures, which is distributed between the pages. I had to take various pieces to give a reasonable movement, the most linear movement possible. I tried to connect the frames to give movement, a natural arc. The film is not just pure movement, from frame to frame, it's a completely new construction.

More generally speaking my way of working on the body comes from photography. I have never perceived it in an erotic or aesthetic way, if in some works the body appears to be erotic it is because it already was to begin with. On the other hand, every one of us stood against a wall with a diffused light, relaxed, looks awful. And three-quarters of my images are shot without lenses, just with a pinhole camera. It's not simple: all the effort made in photographic technique in order to put in a viewfinder in order to see, control the shot, focus, is denied through this choice.

Claudia D'Alonzo: Can you explain this choice of reducing shooting techniques to a pinhole camera?

Paolo Gioli: It's not easy, but in this way you can augment your capacity for observation, you're capable of measuring without systems, you develop certain cerebral apparatus and make them work better. You know how to observe and you know how to get by. It's great to start from nothing. Even if the result isn't how you planned it and you throw it away, you haven't bought a camera, you haven't bought anything, you haven't done anything. It's always a surprise: at the end you worked with nothing, there isn't even any film, just photographic paper. You've erased everything. If you look at photography studios they are full of objects, collections of equipment, a fetishism of technique! If I buy some instrument and I realise that I made a mistake, that I don't need it, I give it away, I rid myself of all that which is not necessary. Even if they were to take film away from me, I would still find a way to make images; you can really work with nothing.

When I began to use the pinhole camera I thought that everyone did so systematically, but when I talked about it I realised that a lot of people didn't even know what it was. Photographers should use it, even if just for personal curiosity. I would advise it as a cure, as a kind of therapy for six or seven days. I assure you that after having tried it it's difficult to leave this technique aside when you realise what you can do with a piece of photographic paper.

Claudia D'Alonzo: Another interesting aspect of your way of doing film is that the imperfections deriving from the technique become characteristics of your images, a stylistic characteristic of your films.

Paolo Gioli: Yes. For example, the shaking is a characteristic of a shot taken in this way, you cannot recreate it artificially. You can only do it with this camera, because it is a camera, there's animation, a movement from top to bottom. A movement of a camera, from top to bottom, that in reality has never existed, because the shot is fixed on a static subject: even the film doesn't move. This is interesting, the camera itself becomes movement, an ultra-movement. This is proto-cinema, something that precedes cinema.

Claudia D'Alonzo: This method of working in my opinion creates a connection between your experimentation on cinematographic and photographic technique and the approach of many artists who work with electronic and digital techniques toward technology. It seems to me that you have in common the desire to not be content with the available techniques and like creating your own instruments, reinventing procedures. What do you think?

Paolo Gioli: I think that you should never lose the dexterity of artistic work. And I think that often the technological innovations become a limitation for many artists: I know a lot of them who get blocked on their work because they cannot buy the latest digital instrument on sale. In general I tell them “come to my studio and we'll solve the problem, we'll find a way”. I think an auteur must always have something in his mind to do or to say and then decide what he needs, and if this thing doesn't exist or costs too much, then he must do it himself. The capacity of building an instrument cannot but add to and glorify the work you do. I'm not interested in comparing myself with digital technology. Many artists work with engineers and technicians, in laboratories like Sony, but you must already be famous in order to work that way.

Claudia D'Alonzo: Not only though. There are auteurs who write their own software or design and assemble hardware for their installations or instruments with which they create images or sounds. Others take pre-existing machines apart and modify them to obtain what they want from the instrument; I don't think this approach is very different to your own, the methods and instruments are different but not the attitude, the way of relating to the medium. I think this is true for the more experimental auteurs of the electronic scene.

Paolo Gioli: I don't like the word “experimental”. It gives a sense of precariousness and indefiniteness. The works that are more often classified as being experimental are finished works: the experiment and the research are in the reconstruction of the case history of the work, from how it was made. This is interesting and is experimentation, but not the work per se which is the end of a path and is finished. Even painters test things, use different techniques. I did some photographs for example by putting photographic paper in my hand and impressing it from the hole that is created by making a fist. This procedure is experimental, it doesn't even exist in photographic history. Just think, it's a method that I, a dickhead from Rovigo , invented! It's fundamental to do tests, that's why I think that dexterity must not be lost as it takes you to the discovery of things you never even imagined, many times thanks to accidents, to errors, that you make your own. One thing that frightens me in electronic technology is the obsolescence of instruments. It's dangerous: it seems to me that the continuous new instruments are a limit and not a stimulus, they do not give creativity time to be just that, creative. The risk is that electronic engineers are more creative than the artists themselves and another risk it that the artists are sucked into the big multinationals of electronics. All this in my opinion is very dangerous; it's more beautiful to surprise people with nothing.

Gunvor Nelson - Interview II

Northern Light
The unique oeuvre of Swedish artist film-maker Gunvor Nelson continues to inspire
by Gregory Kurcewicz (vertigo magazine)
Born in Sweden in 1931, Gunvor Nelson first went to America to study in the 1950s, settling in San Francisco in 1960. Her first foray into film took place within a mainly male avant-garde environment, headed up by the likes of Stan Brakhage, Bruce Baillie and Kenneth Anger. Since the mid 1960s, she has produced an outstanding body of film and, more recently, video and digital work. Through the strength and integrity of this oeuvre and, with her teaching at San Francisco’s State University (a college then) and Art Institute, Nelson has exerted a major influence on generations of film-makers.

Originally trained as a painter, Nelson’s work has always oscillated with threshold-crossing technique. Her first film Schmeerguntz (1966), made with future regular collaborator Dorothy Wiley, initiated a recurring theme; that of how the female body is observed and portrayed. A visceral montage of the realities of life with young children, offered as a reaction to media glossing / mythologisation and the idealisation of women, it resonated strongly with its audiences. Following this, My Name is Oona (1969), an intimate portrait of Nelson’s daughter absorbed in enthusiastic play and contemplation, was accompanied by a looped soundtrack of the girl’s voice. During the ’70s and ’80s, Nelson developed a rich montage of refigured imagery, with painting on photographs, cut-outs and transparencies. Frame Line (1983) explores the quality of memory through a return visit to Sweden. Acting as a kind of generational meditation, Red Shift (1984) focuses on a poetic three-way domestic dialogue between Nelson’s daughter, her mother and herself. A later film, Time Being (1991) offers silent footage of Nelson’s dying mother.

Red Shift
Red Shift

Currently enjoying something of a renaissance, Nelson has developed a new body of highly poetic and intimate digital video work exploring temporal and spatial themes, from Treeline (1998) through Snowdrift (2001) to the evolving installation Evidence (begun in 1999).

Frame Line
Frame Line

During her recent retrospective at the Avanto Festival of Media Arts in Helsinki last November, I spoke to Gunvor Nelson about some of the issues raised above and about her working methods.

Light Years
Light Years

Greg Kurcewicz: How do you set about planning and making your films, as I believe it is sometimes difficult to explain to sponsors how the work might develop?

Gunvor Nelson: When I apply for grant money, I have to make up some kind of story about what I am going to shoot, because I know maybe where I’m starting, but not where it’s going. Instead of having it all spelled out, I have ideas and lists of things I want in the film but, as the film builds, it’s an organic process: the film itself tells me where it wants to go. Every film has its own rules and regulations. With video, I just have a starting point and then it’s what I can do in the computer programmes; that becomes the content of the piece. Just a starting point, nothing else, no other thoughts, and that starting point leads me to unknown territories.
I state a ‘theme’ with a few scenes at the start and search for as many solutions and variations within that as I can find - it can go astray in many ways, and it should, but then come back more or less to the starting point at the end. I want to see how much can be done with very few ingredients. My films, on the other hand, are much more complicated, with much more diverse material to edit, to make montage and sense of. I use less montage in the videos. The opportunity with video is that it’s so easy to repeat, but repeat with slight changes.

GK: Has the process become easier over the years? Do you come now to a new project with the ideas more formed?

GN: I try not to. That’s the most interesting thing about it. I want to jump into a project and not know where I’m going; I take that journey with the making of the film or video and it isn’t easier, absolutely not. I’ve just accumulated a lot of very close-up video images of flowers in my garden. I have gotten into the flowers with my lens, really into them, like a bee. So I have all this fantastic footage, enormous amounts of it, all quite similar and now I have to figure out how to edit it, and I’m just as bewildered as when I first started making films; in that sense it hasn’t become easier. The filming process is very fast compared to the editing process; 95% of editing usually, compared to 5% filming time.

GK: This intimacy in your work, getting very close to things, is something you seem to have been doing since you began. Were there any particular filmmakers, whose work you saw, that influenced this approach?

GN: I assume it must have been seeing the work of Stan Brakhage. He goes very close in his films… It came so naturally, it seems such an obvious thing to do to go close and get more abstraction; it’s a way to see the world differently. You don’t see things that close normally and it’s an easy way to enter other territories, to see other horizons opening up, both with sound and the image. In some of my films I have edited from a distance shot to very close up and back again, in order to create a spatial, sculptural form.

GK: I don’t seem to see much artificial light in your work. You seem to be the kind of person who would wait for the right natural light...

GN: In the case of Red Shift, all the interiors were lit but we tried to light it so that it didn’t show. In Time Being, I was lucky. I didn’t have an extra light and placed the bed right in front of the window and was very happy that the sun lit up the room very brightly to white and then went dark again, which created a fragile feel to the scene. In the process of editing, I am very careful in matching scenes to get a flow and create a cohesive world.

GK: Time Being is a very beautiful film; also very difficult to watch; and I’m interested in the responses audiences have had to it over time.

GN: What I have understood is that the first time people see it, there is this incredible tension - because I hold that scene rather a long time. Even though the film is actually only eight minutes long, it seems like an eternity, It’s so confrontational. But people say that, by the second viewing, they don’t experience it as so long. They have already adjusted themselves, so that they know what to expect. It is a hard film. It is difficult to confront your own death, or your parent’s death...

GK: Was it the result of a dialogue that you had had with your mother? Was it a matter of course that you would film her?

GN: No, I had not discussed it with my mother. I was
living in the US and I hadn’t followed how she became more and more withdrawn and smaller, fading away...

GK: In making Red Shift, what kind of conversations did you have with your mother?

GN: She did everything we (Diane Kitchen, my assistant and I) asked. When my parents were young, they were involved in amateur theatre and my mother directed high school plays, so it was, in a way, her last opportunity with the stage. With the undressing and putting on the stockings, she was all for it.

GK: When you are making a film, do you always carry a camera with you, because it seems that you are pursuing themes all the time, that that you are perhaps never off duty...

GN: I’ve never carried a camera, ever, unless I have a definite project. It’s not haphazard when I collect images; but I also collect images in my memory. I might see something and store it in my mind for possible use in some film.

GK: How has working with digital cameras changed things for you?

GN: Well, shooting more than I need for one...

GK: Do you like the digital image compared to film?

GN: I have been very unhappy about the video image; sometimes the projection can be very bad too... I need good projection with good contrast. I use a Sony mini-dv camera. I don’t know where the deficiencies are, whether it’s in the lenses or all the way through the video system that makes it poor. Therefore, I refuse to put my films onto video; I haven’t found a good system to transfer with yet.

Gunvor Nelson’s films are available for hire through Lightcone (; Canyon (; Filmform ( and LUX (; video)
Her work will be shown at the Curzon Soho, London in January 2004 and at the Scratch Festival in Paris in March 2004. Gunvor Nelson – Still Moving (I LJUD OCH BILD; ISBN 91-89422-80-5) is edited by John Sundholm and published by the Centre for the Creative Arts, Karlstad University. Gunvor Nelson and the Avant–Garde (ISBN 3-631-51838-2) is also available.
Gregory Kurcewicz is an artist and independent curator of artist’s film and video. His programme A Beautiful Virus inside the Machine, computer animation by Lillian Schwartz from 1970-80 and presented in collaboration with Lumen, will be shown at the Barbican, London in May and through the UK and Europe in 2004 (for other venues

Gunvor Nelson - Interview II

This interview took place on October 24, 2006 in New York City during the Museum of Modern Art's retrospective of Nelson's work.
Drake Stutesman: You famously have gone from using film to using video. When did you do that and what are the pluses and minuses of this transfer?
Gunvor Nelson: My films are in 16mm. In Sweden, and probably here too, there are very few 16mm projectors left. Many institutions don't maintain their projectors and don't have people who can run them well. Even at established places. Film's so vulnerable to scraps and dirt and damages to sprocket holes. The beginning of Red Shift [US, 1984] was ruined recently. We saw it jump all over the place. The film is showing next in Chicago and I don't know if it's going to go through the projector. I wonder what film I should replace it with. Not long ago I showed a film at the Swedish Film Institute and they ruined it. It goes on and on.
DS: You have negatives of all these films?
GN: My originals are stored at Pacific Film Archive. I'd like to have prints made from the original negative of Red Shift, which is falling apart and needs to be mended. It was at Palmer Labs, which doesn't exist anymore, and the film has to be placed at another lab. There you have to go through the whole process of timing again. Timing is the term for going through every scene and correcting the density of lights and darks and the color. It's easier with a black and white film like Red Shift. This is all costly plus the costs of making trial prints. The Pacific Film Archive has made an inter-negative and they use this negative for archival purposes. So that is my situation; I can't make any more prints unless I spend a lot of money and time. At this point I'm very tired of my 16mm films. Because I want them shown I'm dragging my heavy old films around, when I actually want to be at work making new videos. I don't have much grasp of the computer but I can use certain programs for video quite well. The very best thing about video is that it is so much fun and that I can do the whole process myself in the computer, from filming to editing to manipulating the image to the final product. No labs are needed. It's so much easier than film when the computer behaves. Of course both image and sound can go wrong in all kinds of ways. One is during transfers, but video does not get the same kind of scrapes and damages; in certain ways it is not as vulnerable as film.
DS: When did you make that transfer to video?
GN: At first I went to the Royal Academy of Art in Stockholm for a special course in video. I was by far the oldest one and I had never done video.
DS: When was this?
GN: In '98. There was not enough good equipment and people were fighting for time on the equipment. You had to sit at night to edit and this was difficult for me so I went to another workshop and there I more or less taught myself. The workshop had new equipment so things didn't break down so often.
DS: Are there any losses in using video? Is there anything you wish you could retain from film when using video?
GN: Not, it seems, if you have a good camera, a good lens, and good projection. You saw the difference in Before Need [US, 1976] and True to Life [US, 2006] [shown at MoMA the night before]. It's not that much difference. If you get the projector to have the right ratios of blacks so that you get a distance in the visuals, so that the blacks are black and the whites are white and they have a nice range of colors in between. I don't really see that difference. They say it gets flat but it depends on how you film. I'm not at all against video.
DS: The word "fragmentation" is used a lot about your work. I find it the opposite. I find your films very holistic. Even the little worm that's cut with the fingernail is still one piece, part of the action, or in the stripper film, Take Off [US, 1972], she's a body and she comes apart but she remains a body. The films show pieces within a relationship that cohere and stay separate.
GN: Oh, good.
DS: Could you talk about your sense of a whole? How do you put things together?
GN: Every film has its own solution. It feels difficult to talk about my filmmaking as a whole. I trust that if I have an attitude when I go about working on a particular film, it will not stray too much. I'm searching for the world of that particular film and from there diversions can take place, if the same attitude is maintained throughout. Like in Before Need, there is a glossy feel to how we filmed things. The objects are very present. We lit or we chose the things that were lit in the same way. Faces, fruits, all the objects had the same straightforward filming. We didn't film down on things, we filmed straight on. We used a tripod, maybe not in every single shot, which created a steady quality. So I go for a style or a feeling with each scene so that it belongs in that film's family. Then it's not so difficult to make diversions and come back because, somehow, it all fits. I don't know if I'm making myself clear?
DS: Yes, very clear. It would be helpful to talk about a specific film. You've said that you let the visuals lead you, that you don't have a storyline beforehand. And then the film leads you into the narrative, which comes through the editing at the end. Could you talk about that?
GN: It's interesting that sometimes when I write for a grant, I just throw ideas out and then somehow they become solidified and when I get the money there's already a lead in. But with Red Shift, for example, there were things that I knew already; that it was about the generations as well as having many very close-up shots and, in contrast, shots where you could see distance. It was going to be about women-a mother-and-daughter theme. I also wanted to include Calamity Jane's letters. That was the base. There were lists of things. I listed things like "anger," "jealousy," "love," all kinds of emotions. I wanted those in there somehow, but how they were going to be depicted, I didn't spell out in the beginning. They slowly appeared as I thought about the film.
DS: You talk about the film as a family. Relationships are very dominant in your work: between people, between objects and between you as the camera - person and the thing itself. Can you talk about this concept of family and relationships?
GN: That's a lot [laughs]. When I use "family," I mean it to have an atmosphere or quality specific to a certain film. From this basic atmosphere even very divergent surprises can fit if they belong to that family world. What fits or not is a difficult balance. For instance, I heard that there was a brush factory in my hometown in Sweden. So I asked, "Do you think I can get in to film there?" There was a lot of hassle. They didn't want me to film their technical secrets. But I got the scene with the naked brush without bristles and somebody in the film says, "Naked as a frog." People have wondered why I used that in Red Shift. I liked it. Somehow it worked for me and it humanized the objects that were in the process of being formed.
DS: Well, Before Need has interesting philosophical lines in it. One of them is, "After much practice I have learned to understand the relationship between object to ground." This sounds thematic to your work. What do you think?
GN: I don't have a memory of words like some people do. I couldn't quote you hardly anything that's in my films. I'm much more visual. I might think them up but I can't remember them or why I put them in or what they mean. But they somehow make sense to me. It's very difficult for me to tell you if it's theme or if it's moment in the film.
DS: Last night [at MoMA], when I asked you that question in the Q & A, you said, Yes that does sound right [both laugh]. Obviously, objects have great meaning to you and a human meaning to you. Talk about that. For example, the dead bird [in Natural Features, US, 1990] which you paint and then use stop frame, animation, and more painting. You started as a painter.
GN: In that particular film, I was in a good mood. I was in Stockholm and it was summer, and I had the use of Filmverkstan's animation room. They had a stationary camera set up to work underneath. There I built up with glass and filmed objects both underneath and above that glass. I was in a very spirited mood and would bring things I found on the ground on my walks like the dead bird. I bought various toys and a fish that I painted on and had a grand time collecting and filming. I didn't think, "Now I want a fish," but once these things were in the room and I filmed them, they became very much part of that film. The whole film is like that. Anything can happen and be part of it. But because I was doing the animation, four frames a second, in the camera, it all has the same rhythm. As to the objects, it's hard. They do take on some kind of significance once you point to them. But this, for instance [points to recorder], I would have to film so that it meant more than just a tape recorder.
DS: How would you do that?
GN: Ummm, how it was placed and what surrounded it or if you didn't show the whole thing or you started painting on it, or whatever. If it's too mundane and means only one thing, it will need to have reverberations and echoes of meaning, rather than being just plain "tape recorder."
DS: So is that how all this evolution with the painting etc started? Do you see this in a sense-I don't want to pin you down-as reverberations from the object? You had talked about a film being variations on a theme or expressions of a gesture.
GN: Ripples of unexpected meanings or layers of meaning occur when you can't quite pin it down. I mean a potency of some kind that is not evident when you first see the object. Like the tomato in Before Need when a dull knife goes through it. Somehow, to me, it is beautiful, yet other darker things happen. I don't always spell it out for myself but I know that there are other meanings.
DS: Again, that makes me think that "holistic" is a more appropriate word for your films.
GN: I don't know quite what you mean by "holistic."
DS: I don't see the films as in pieces; rather, I see them as if kaleidoscopically cohering together.
GN: Right, that's what I see them as. There are so many different views of the film that add to the whole rather than detract into pieces. I always think of it as a puzzle and as having a kaleidoscopic quality. I repeat a lot but I usually let the same scene return in a different way each time, because the scene advances. This way you might get a more complete whole than if I just let the entire scene have its run.
DS: Other filmmakers came to mind in looking at your work. In Red Shift I had a great sense of the Straub/Huillet films with the corridors and figures.
GN: Who are they? I haven't seen their work.
DS: They are a German and French filmmaking team. Of course, Bruce Baillie is another kindred filmmaker.
GN: Yes, before I started filmmaking, I'd seen his films and Brakhage's films and others too. Like Dalí.
DS: The painter?
GN: Yes. And Buñuel. I knew that they were showing me that I, as a single artist, could also use film. Before that I thought I couldn't use film. It was too complicated and you needed whole studios.
DS: You studied as a painter. What kind of painting did you do? Brush, pallet knife?
GN: I'd painted since I was twelve so I went through all kinds of "isms" but I guess Abstract Expressionism. But more realistic, what do you call that "ism"? Figurative Expressionism. I remember as a fifteen-year-old in Holland looking at Franz Hals. It was the very emotional, expressionistic pictures that I reacted to rather than the very staid and careful paintings, although I could appreciate some of those too. Individualistic art impressed me and painters who showed more than the style of the day.
DS: How did you end up seeing Brakhage and the others?
GN: I remember being at a country house in Canyon near Berkeley with Bob Nelson. Was it at Bruce Baillie's parents'? There was a showing of avantgarde films. That's why it's called Canyon Cinema. Bruce Baillie's very lyrical films were shown and I thought, Well, this is it, this is what I want to do. There were Larry Jordan's films also.
DS: When was that?
GN: Dorothy [Wiley] and I started in '65. So it must have been '63, '64. I don't know.
DS: Can you talk about your collaboration with Dorothy Wiley?
GN: She and I worked together on the two early films, Schmeerguntz [US, 1966] and Fog Pumas [US, 1967]. After that, we made a film called Five Artists: BillBobBillBillBob, a film that Dorothy wanted to make. It is a documentary starting with five artists drawing big drawings together in a studio. The film continues with a section for each artist and ends with a party. Then we made Before Need. I usually did the filming as well as much of the editing. Dorothy has a background in literature and writes and she collected dreams for several of the films. She listens to much more music than I do and has that knowledge. So she was adding another dimension. In those days we stole music; we didn't have any rights.
DS: Do you like the diversity of collaboration?
GN: When we first started out we needed each other. We barely had a camera and no knowledge of filmmaking.
DS: You often make films on a reversal print?
GN: In the beginning, it was all reversal. Everyone was using reversal, because with reversal you could cut your own original yourself. Later on I had a light table so I could see exactly how and when I could synchronize the A, B, C, D rolls. Most of the people I knew making films in the sixties did it themselves. Editing and optical printing were very primitive, so it was what you had at hand or borrowed. You didn't have fancy equipment.
DS: It would be fascinating to hear a sound track of one of your films. It's so rich.
GN: I was surprised how much I liked the sound track for Natural Features [US, 1990]. Jytte [ Jensen, the MoMA curator of Nelson's retrospective] wanted to run back and turn it down. I didn't think it would hurt hearing it loud for once since it is so sparse. It was full and it was nice because usually a sound track for 16mm film is not as full as for video.
DS: Can you talk about sound in your films? It seemed like a knitting stitch that was constantly knitting into the film, pulling it together. Why is it so important to you?
GN: I do work on my sound, but I don't work on it simultaneously with the image. I find it much more freeing to work on the picture first and the sound later, in video as well. I'm so used to cutting without a worry about the sound and especially in 16mm, it was a drag to have to keep remembering to carry along the sync sound. I very seldom did 16mm sync filming. Before Need is synced. Video's different, it's automatically synced, so you can more easily cut it out or leave it in.
DS: You see editing the film as a sculptural process but that's an appropriate word for your sound. How do you approach it? Is it intuitive?
GN: I don't know. Again, every film has to have its own solution. I like to solve problems. I think that's my impetus to work on as complex a thing as sound/image. The more material you have, the harder it is to do the editing. It takes more time. It's not so intuitive; it's more trial and error. I really don't believe that much in intuition, unless you think of intuitive as being accumulated knowledge. I work so long and hard on my films that that knowledge of the film is stored in me. It's something like computer storage that, with a lot of work and time, I've placed in my brain and can draw from. At the beginning of a project I usually write lists to remember.
DS: What do you write?
GN: I have a list in True to Life with all the plants. Because I didn't know plants that well I didn't name them. Instead I made little drawings in color and comments about the connecting shot, comments like "from red to blue" or "from light to dark." I have analyzed all these scenes. Is it fast-moving? Is it going from right to left? I break down the scene with all these details. So once I did that I knew what I had to work with, it's like a script that you learn. My little drawings are faster to read than descriptions of the same images.
DS: So this is part of what you mean when you say the visuals direct the way you put the film together?
GN: Yes. On top of that is the other content. Like if it's a mother or a daughter. Is it a tender scene? A hitting scene? Each scene has an enormous amount of information. Then it's about combing all the ingredients so that it makes some kind of sense in the kaleidoscopic editing process. Now, for video, I have a keyboard. So I can make my own sounds in video. For True to Life, I only altered a few sounds. I amplified the sounds of moving through the plants but not very much. It was the camera and the plants that hit each other, their meeting, that made all the sound.
DS: There's a love of the process and of the object and of the interactions of the world. It's very joyful to watch your films.
GN: As you see when I describe my process, I can't say I have one way of working. Often it's a learning process of what this particular film needs and what this film has in it already.
DS: You have feministic direction in a number of films.
GN: That has come out less from my directing than it has from something existential. I don't like the word "feminist." I never have. I think it's more about humanism. It's for everybody. Equal rights and all that. But the word has drawn it into a different direction for me. It gets interpreted differently than I intend it. I'm very glad for those who are fighting in a more political way because I don't want to do that. I'm coming from an artist's point of view not from a political point of view.
DS: Well, Schmeerguntz.
GN: That's more from my own experience of the absurdities of it.
DS: You use fabric a lot. Things that transform. Things that burn. Rather than images of erosion, these are images of transformation. Fabric has that loose and fluid quality. In Red Shift, I thought the use of fabric-and I mean this very loosely-had a political tone. Women and fabric is a very ancient relationship.
GN: I'm talking about the sewing. To me these are more her symbols. The huge needle going through the little tiny hole. That has another connotation than the domestic scene.
DS: What connotation is that?
GN: Well, that we are all squeezed through. I mean squeezing through something that doesn't fit. It goes through and it's filled but with difficulty. And it's absurd because it's so huge. Maybe that doesn't show. And then the sewing is zigzagging and it's work. It's all these threads. It's sewing with difficulty or with a result that is not the norm.
DS: You grew up in Sweden. You were about twenty-one when you left. What from your childhood influenced your becoming a filmmaker and using film as you do?
GN: I always wanted to be an artist or an architect. I grew up in a very athletic family. I'm not saying we were stars. My mother was a gymnastics teacher, as was her mother. But in those days, my mother and her mother were also trained as physical therapists. My mother had three sisters and they were gymnastics teachers. We had a summer place and we were in the water and swimming and diving all the time. I dove a lot. It was that physicalness that was very related to dance and gestures. So My Name is Oona is a continuation of that somehow. That's my vague understanding of it. You never know how you became something.
DS: That makes sense. There's flow-of one gesture leading into another-and cohesion. Athletics is cohesion of movement, which is certainly how I would describe your films. Can you talk about your filming of True to Life? You said that you used two lenses on your camera. It's a fascinating technique. And the close-up is a very dominant feature in all your films.
GN: I guess I want to investigate the world and use whatever I can to get into it. A close-up lens is a great tool for getting to some other place where you haven't been. So that's easy in that sense, and it abstracts. If I view my hand like this, it's a hand. But if I go close here, there are rivers. It's a whole new landscape. The close-up lens allows me to go into a place I can't usually see. It's fun to discover new areas. It takes a portion and enlarges it so we don't connect it so much with the person. It removes certain knowledge so that you can see what is there more clearly.
DS: That's very evident in the films. You're not dehumanizing or fragmenting. Rather, you're doing something more like an attenuation, like pulling something out. It makes me think of Time Being [US, 1991]. You're filming your dying mother and the camera tracks back further and further until we see your own legs. That is a series of removes, as it were, and yet it is a continuous line. But it's meant as a connection from one to the other. You were connected. So it works both ways.
GN: Yes. That's right.
DS: Thanks so much, Gunvor.
                                                Gunvor Nelson