Jodie Mack is a filmmaker and experimental animator whose works include Yard Work is Hard Work (2008), Dusty Stacks of Mom: the Poster Project (2013), and Let Your Light Shine (2013). She has also made a series of textile-based flicker films that were semi-recently featured at the Harvard Film Archive under the program title “Jodie Mack’s Posthaste Perennial Patterns”; the program included Posthaste Perennial Pattern (2010), Point de Gaze (2012), and Persian Pickles (2012) among others. Her latest film, The Grand Bizarre (2018), which “follow[s] components, systems, and samples in a collage of textiles, tourism, language, and music”, plays at the Brattle Theatre this Monday, February 11, along with two of her recently completed shorter works, Wasteland No. 1: Ardent, Verdant (2017) and Hoarders Without Boarders 1.0 (2018). We spoke last week at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
DIG: Your other textile-based films are entirely comprised of images of the objects themselves, but from the very first minute The Grand Bizarre is engaging with how they exist in larger spaces. It feels wrong to describe airports and marketplaces and train stations as “the natural world”, but with that said there’s a lot of “the natural world” in The Grand Bizarre. Was that shift a starting point for the production, or was it something that developed throughout production itself?
Kind of both. It was both a necessity and something that slowly unfolded. For a certain amount of time, I had been looking for a way to move away from my animation stand. Like: it’s fine to produce those kinds of films, but it’s really limiting as far as where one can be. And the amount of hours that it takes to sit with that camera in the same place really started to tucker me out. A few years ago at film festivals I was looking around, and I was semi-jealous of other people because they had the real world in their films. And there was a flatness to mine—it was never going to have natural light hitting anything, you know… it was just different. That was one reason to enjoy the films I was making, but I also wanted to find ways to do things differently. And that was kind of the impetus behind one of my prior movies, Dusty Stacks of Mom: like, okay, we’ve got a location, let’s practice traveling with film and gear, let’s practice going to another place to make a study.
In this film I definitely wanted to continue that, to continue finding reasons to shoot outside the animation stand. Of course the performance aspect of Dusty Stacks [the film’s soundtrack is performed live] is what sent me traveling to start this new film [The Grand Bizarre]. So those impulses were very much interrelated. But, then I became really taken with some of the footage that was shot in these real spaces, partially because there’s a double or triple (or more) animation that occurs because you’re animating the object plus everything else around it is doing its own movement. I thought that was very beautiful. I became really excited to forfeit control with those types of images because one of my whole beliefs behind this film… is that before anything’s even said, before you hear or see anything, the idea of animation automatically proves the impossibility of cinema verite. Documentary’s already Narrative 2.0, and then add animation to that, and it’s obvious just how constructed it is, that there’s no truth here.
I was particularly struck by the way that water ripples in the film as a result of the animation style. You see it moving naturally for a few moments, then there’s a time cut, then it moves naturally a few more moments, then there’s another time-cut, and so on… those images also suggested to me that the film was pushing against certain formal labels: I found myself wondering if such instances would indeed be considered animation, then wondering whether or not that would matter.
One of the most important questions for me in cinema is not is animation a type of cinema? as much as it’s is cinema a type of animation? You could spend a whole lifetime on that question—as I am doing. Animation is a weighted term, and all of my work is carrying this weight, of animation being known as a fully narrative genre, or even of experimental animation being known as a fully decorative genre. There’s also all of these notions around animation as being a genre for children. I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor (2018) this summer, and I thought, oh my gosh, he’s [Fred Rogers] really carrying all the same problems as the animator—especially the animator that’s trying to pose questions about the relationship between art and craft, that’s working in handmade forms now in the world of mass-produced computer objects and images.
There’s tons of live action included in the The Grand Bizarre. I think if you showed this film to a lot of people who had a limited understanding of what animation was, they might say no, this is not an animation. But that’s where I feel like the film is… is it an animation? Is it a documentary? Is it a travelogue? Is it a music video? What is it? I don’t have an answer.
Another set of distinctions I wanted to ask about are those that come with distribution. Your films have played theatrically, within festivals, in public spaces, exhibitions, online, and elsewhere. At the Brattle The Grand Bizarre will play on 35mm. I know the majority of your work is produced on 16mm, but how important is format to you in terms of exhibition?
It depends. I think a lot of my shorter more stroboscopic works kind of die on video not because of the image quality as much as because of the mechanics of the projection—the intermittent stroboscopic of a film projector vs. the refresh rate of a video projector. But, yeah, I have a lot of my stuff up on Vimeo; I believe in offering it for free. I believe people should have access to these films, and I’m not precious about whether you’ve seen it on 16mm or video or whatever. And, for The Grand Bizarre, I thought, the more formats, the better! Because it’s all about that. It’s about whether you find a specific pattern on a piece of polyester, or on a heavily labored-over handmade woven piece, or on a decal or something like that. It’s about how these different forms of medium specificity alter the nuance behind meaning. And of course with a 35mm print we find another idea around economics—it was actually cheaper for me to make that 35mm print than it was for me to make a 16mm print. The whole reason the 35mm print came about is because there’s a lot of sub-bass in the soundtrack of my film and I was concerned that it wasn’t going to show up in the 16mm copy. Which it didn’t. It didn’t sound horrible, but the bass isn’t there….
So we’re talking about the track on the print itself, magnetic sound?
Optical sound, on the 16mm print. You have a light bulb that’s reading differences between black and white and that is what makes your sound. People joke that it’s the most limited dynamic range and most limited frequency range of all the audio formats. So you have to mix really carefully. It’s hard when you have ultra-high frequency pitches, and it can be hard when you have ultra low frequency pitches. Now sub-bass, in the vernacular of our pop music, was not a thing when they invented 16mm audio technology. As a result sub-bass just doesn’t make the sound, it doesn’t thump, because it’s not there. The stuff isn’t there to make those frequencies. And, there is no subwoofer (my ideal format would be 1.1: center + sub). It still doesn’t sound bad, but when you go from the digital stereo to this, it’s very different. The 35mm copy was made as a backup, I chose to have the 35mm copy instead of a second 16mm copy. And the screening at the Brattle will only be the 2nd screening of it on 35mm, the first time will be in Chicago the week before.
It did play on film at the New York Film Festival right?
That was on 16mm.
What has your reaction been to the look of the film, as opposed to the sound, on these different formats?
I haven’t seen it on 35mm, but I’ve seen it scanned and I’ve spoken to my lab about it… if you’re a purist about 16mm or film in general, at this point in time you really can’t not acknowledge the role of a digital intermediate. Does it make it better? Does it make it worse? I don’t know. I’m excited to see it on 35mm because for me 35mm has always been the marker of, like, “a real movie”, you know? And in some ways when I watch my movies on 16mm it’s always like I’m watching a home movie, not a real movie. Because 35mm was the format when I was going to the cinema growing up, everything was 35mm, nothing was digital.
So, it all looks fine. I shoot on 16mm because of its rendering of color and texture. And of course the stroboscopic intermittency of the camera and the projector. Those are the only reasons. Because it’s not easier, it’s much harder.
So I guess the question becomes that given there’s usually going to be a digital intermediate [altering those effects], what keeps you working in that format?
To clarify: my 16mm print does not incorporate a digital intermediate; everything is cut from the negative. I was thinking more about moving forward and from an archival perspective. But, yes, the projection mechanism. And that’s just what keeps me working in this format! I think cinema really suffered from the fact that it was an industry before it was an art form. We had to pay off the lenses before we could even define it as an art form. Then it got pushed into these rules of what it should be. Questions like why would you do this instead of this prove, to me, these unfortunate misunderstandings around cinema. Nobody would ask an artist why they choose to draw in pencil as opposed to a tablet. And nobody would ask anybody why they choose to play the piano instead of an electric keyboard. And it’s the cinema that suffers from these questions. Because, people who are working on film are constantly asked these questions. And I get it: from people who don’t really use it, it’s like, yeah, why? But, it’s because they’re different—even though they are the same! Would you rather go to see a band in concert or listen to them on record, CD, tape, mp3? They’re all very different… The bolex is my instrument. That’s the instrument I play.
To cross from exhibition into distribution more generally, once the film is finished, do you have much of a strategy for how it goes out, or is it more whoever wants to play it can play it?
For this movie it’s basically who’s writing me and asking me for it is who’s showing it. Usually it’s just been that. You send it out a few times and then people start to ask you.
Related to all these exhibition/distribution questions is the status of The Grand Bizarre as a quote-unquote “feature”. When I first watched it I thought, perhaps incorrectly, that it was something of a formal joke that the film, at 60 minutes and change, is exactly long enough to be considered feature-length by certain standards… Conceptually, was the idea of making a “feature” in any way important to you?
The material landed in my lap, with a breadth of ideas that begged for that amount of time. I actually think the movie could be longer; I have five extra hours of footage. Once I had that wealth of material, I was most interested in making something that was exactly an hour. Because of ideas of the hour being a finite amount of time; an hour being a full revolution around the clock; an hour being the largest 16mm reel you can have. So that’s what I was interested in. And I’ve gotten a lot of pushback from friends, that are like, why do experimental filmmakers need to make features, and it’s like, well, to take it back to the analogies we were just using, if you’re a composer, you might do a fugue, and then a sonata, and then a symphony, and it’s all just demarcations of duration that you’re experimenting with. As far as features are concerned, I would argue that it’s not even about how much time it takes, but how much is in the film. Dusty Stacks of Mom, with the work that went into that, three years of constant work, is definitely some sort of feature offering. Even a 30-minute film that I’ve made (Yard Work is Hard Work)… when you’re working in animation, it’s totally different.
Editing The Grand Bizarre did make me think a lot about markers for duration that we have in cinema and pop music: Why is everything on the radio under three minutes? Why is everything at the cinema around 120 minutes? Where do we come up with these? Why not make something that’s totally in the middle? And, people will give you advice as you go through, like, this won’t be able to be programmed because it’s this long. But, I am a believer that a film should be as long as it needs to be—even though my film could’ve been longer. I’ve also recut the film as a performance, with completely different footage that doesn’t occur in the [current release cut of the] film.
The fire scene at the start of the film, you’ve mentioned that what we see burning are objects and sets that were once slated for inclusion in the film?
They are in the film, just very quickly.
The nature of your form makes The Grand Bizarre impossible to reassemble in my mind. Every time I’ve seen it, I’ve found myself looking at a particular shot or sequence, and thinking, did I see that last time?
Shooting on the bolex governs that no shot can be longer than 25 seconds, except for in the last part [of the film], which was shot with a motor. So, I was tasked with constructing this quilt out of tiny threads, out of cast-offs. And it became more important to me to create the illusion of a memory, or the feeling of getting lost, or speed-reading through it, very much in the same way that it is when you look at a textile with a bunch of patterns all over it—you’re kind of grasping it, but you don’t really remember: was the diamond next to the chevron and then the dolphin? how did that go? It’s really much more interested in creating an impression of an experience than it is in the nuts and bolts of it.
An image of a diamond grid serves as one of the primary recurring images throughout The Grand Bizarre, often used to layer images and colors within one another. Can you tell me about that?
Sure, but I’m going to separate it into just “the diamond” and “the grid”. The diamond is the leading character. It’s this motif that was popping up in every single fabric culture that I found, and which then a few steps down the road takes us right to “the grid”. I used the diamond because it was in every textile thing that I could find, with different names and different definitions and different versions of what it represented. But I think you’re specifically talking about these moments with concentric diamonds…
Right, the diamond shapes which seem to be made of squares, and which have different separate images within them…
It’s like a vortex of knowledge. It became this travel trance portal, as opposed to just an image. So that’s where that particular scene came from. But, what was important about this idea of the diamond was how you can’t make an image on a textile without a grid. That brought me to a lot of other things: the history of rendering space in general; how we need a grid to make perspective; how we need a grid to standardize time and space; how digital uses of grids reinforce or repeat analog uses of grids. And, of course, it comes back to this whole tenuous relationship between what is art and what is craft. Once you go through this feeling of understanding the complex history of the material and technological function of grids to design images and think about the history of mapping and technology and sound and time… it really takes away all meaning from any kind of Greenbergian camp of modernism, how the grid was the next step in fine art.
It’s something that’s really troubling and we don’t discuss it—I thought it was going to come up, in this moment of cultural appropriation—one of the things that’s so interesting to me about experimental animation is that it’s thought of as being nonpolitical. Well, if you look at the animations coming out of a place like California in the 60s and 70s, the films borrow from things like mandalas, eastern philosophy… it’s like well-meaning colonialism, number 2. They mean well! I’m just gonna like use this gamelan music and put this mandala up here because I believe in it and I’m anti-Vietnam… with no idea what this would set up for the future (and no criticality of the grid as a form used way before conceptual art nomenclature). So, the idea of the grid being the key to all of contemporary art at one point in time is completely ridiculous to me. Because when you look at those painters, a lot of this stuff doesn’t look that much different than a textile design. So again it’s the classic case of white men putting their names on things which they didn’t invent…
In the name of fine art…
In the name of Fine art. If you’re a textile maker outside of a fine art context or form, you might be lucky enough to… sell your work to tourists… or to get into a natural history museum, and you’ll never be a fine artist. But, in that time period, with the rise of craft and the idea of women’s work seeping into a fine art context we essentially raised a lot of white women to learn how to make textiles, and they could be textile fine artists. Using the exact same technology. It’s this moment where everything becomes congealed and you can’t define one thing from the next that became so interesting to me, especially because the grid is suppose to give order. What happens if you’re to scrunch it up? That to me is another benefit of animation. To me, animation starts where cubism wanted to leave off. Cubism was like: okay, I want to give every perspective around one object, and so essentially their perspective on something that’s still is something with a temporal mindset—it’s implying phenomenology, it’s implying that you walked around it to look at it (as well as several phases of time, like chronophotography). Animation has this ability to superimpose all these different things at the same time, which is one of the things that’s so exciting about it to me, and one of the reasons I don’t really enjoy it being known for like fuzzy bunnies with big eyes. Even a lot of the animated documentaries that I see just borrow live-action forms and then impose animated imagery on top of them. It really had the potential to be its own form. And in some people’s work you can see that.
Another tradition which your work lines up with is that of flicker movies, and what’s come to be known as “film structuralism”. I wanted to ask about this because there’s been a number of screenings and programs in Boston in recent years which are directly related to that tradition—the retrospective of works by Tony Conrad at MIT and the Carpenter Center, and the program of films by Paul Sharits at the HFA, to name two. And while a number of those films are ones I value greatly, they could also be described with the exact same language: groups of mostly white men in the era of the Vietnam War using a fine art context to elevate works that on a formal level are not too far beyond what prior artists and craftspeople had already established. I’m curious about your relationship to the flicker in a historical sense.
For a while I had my own delusion of grandeur that I could be the Eva Hesse of the flicker film. Eva Hesse is of course someone who took the cube and wrapped it in fabric and string and brought elements of texture towards these things, which ultimately brought content to that which is supposed to be without content. Which brings us back to the idea of whether abstract animation is political or not. Let’s work through that. Even if it doesn’t have a political agenda, let’s say, the idea of making an abstract film, historically, was political in its resistance to a narrative form (which to me is a carryover of religion, bible, literature, theater, cinema, same old thing). So, there is this mode of resistance. Now, does that mode of resistance count once abstraction has been co-opted by capitalism as a decorative form? When it’s on your screensavers and behind people on the news and on the wall at rave clubs? I guess no. I guess it’s no longer political. So, then, you need to bring the content into it! And actually, several of my flicker films have been rejected from a good friend of mine’s abstract animation festival, because she claims they’re not abstract! Because it’s stuff, it’s real things, like you might recognize something that you own in one of those films.
For a long time I was focusing on what’s on the frame, these fabrics, they’re doing this, these papers, they’re doing this, there’s a relationship to it, and it’s imposing this content on it, which again… And, I could say: this is how serious my films are, and you should be drinking these concepts out of them. But instead I open it up, and you can extract this [content] or you can not, as a result some people consider my films as though they’re McDonalds children’s movies, as though they’re happy and ebullient and celebratory and they’re really not. They’re not really celebratory at all, they’re always critical (well, actually, I suppose they are both)… and it’s up to the audience—to me, that is the joy of working in experimental film, is that you give the autonomy to the viewer—they can decide whatever they want. It’s not up to me to tell you what the film’s about. I know what the film is about to me, and I will tell you if you want to know! But, why shove that down someone’s throat?
So, that was my impulse towards starting to work in flicker. I think in some ways, flicker film is still untapped. It’s an untapped resource, I believe, for psychological therapy, for trauma. You hear someone like Lillian Schwartz talking about how the reason that she got into this is because she was a nurse in Japan seeing all this horrible stuff and what did the images do? They washed her brain of the trauma! Sharits was almost there with his fascination of perception and interest in the relationship of physiology and vision. And seizures. And, to me there’s really something behind the neuroscience of flicker films that is still untapped as a therapy resource in the realm of EMDR, somatic experience, therapy of the parasympathetic nervous system—things like that. Because I’m also very interested in, and a lot of my earlier films have, sonic frequencies of auxiliary percussion: Glockenspiels, xylophones, vibraphones. And when you go into the nitty-gritty of the research on these types of frequencies, there’s something about the way they’re vibrating that can also induce a seizure. There’s something about vibration that’s very important to the idea of a flicker film, and that probably actually doesn’t have a function within the context of art, but has more of a function within the context of a hospital. I don’t know if that’s an outlandish view of what this is, but yeah, I look at a lot of the films you’re mentioning, the Tony Conrad’s and the Paul Sharits’, and… they’re not very radical per se, but perhaps, of course, that depends on how one defines “radical”.
In a lot of cases they’re films made of just one or two alternating images.
Peter Kubelka! Positive and negative next to each other.
Part of the reason I started by asking about “the natural world” and its place within this particular flicker film is because it’s on some level incredible to me that you’ve pushed the form this far beyond alternating images, and also that nobody has really done so before.
Or maybe they have and we just don’t know about it because history is suspect!
I think about the use of sunsets in this film—the way you see hours of sunlight passing by flickering objects within seconds. Which means what we’re seeing is time, time moving as the work is being done, as the film is both being made and playing out. Is the use of the flicker within a context outside of static imagery something you’d been thinking about and working towards in your work?
I joke with some people that I’m not doing any more films, and that I want to go back to the theatre. I’m back to things that can unfold in real time, the relationship between performer and audience. I don’t really have formal goals for my films as much as I have conceptual goals. For example we were talking about the flicker thing, Paul Sharits, and I said I thought I could imply content by using certain objects. After making that big batch of [textile] films, and being known as someone who makes film with fabric, and then finishing this film, I thought, hmmmm, I don’t really make films about fabric, I make films about invisible labor. And, still, capital detritus. A material culture underbelly. Whether it has a role in fine art or cinema or wherever… what a lot of people say my films are about, and even what I say they’re about half the time, is wrong. They are about invisible labor. So to me, I’m like: my next film should deal with this concept and this concept and this concept, and I’m not sure about what I’m thinking formally.
Was the interest in the invisible labor something that was present even in the earliest works of this cycle, like Posthaste Perennial Pattern?
I think labor has been at the core of every one of my films. If you go back to my graduate thesis, Yard Work is Hard Work, it’s about people who can’t afford their mortgage. And what they will do to do that, and how labor is a part of their relationship, and a part of their domestic space. All those flicker films, while they don’t say it, they’re all about invisible labor… I don’t know if it’s something I necessarily always knew, but, more and more, I come into my own, I think: maybe I make labor films? They might be labor films even more than they are ornamentation films. That’s the curiousness of them to me, that they’re all those things at once.
A lot of the reason I gravitated towards a flicker in the first place was because I’m a terrible animator. I don’t see in 3D, I can’t draw perspective, I’m not really fluid. And I started out as a cameraless filmmaker. And cameraless films have a metabolism like no other—which I’ve always tried to find in films made with cameras. Sequential animation is never going to cut it, ever. So you need these little accidents, and fluctuations in perspective.
I was recently having a conversation about a short film of mine that’s also going to screen at the Brattle, Wasteland No. 1: Ardent, Verdant (2017). It’s a film with pictures of poppies and computer boards. But to me what’s interesting about it is that it’s like a collision of vantage points, it’s somebody looking straight ahead and a bird’s eye view all at the same time. That’s the cubism thing! And that’s my goal: how many perspectives can I get in here at once?
Transcript has been edited and condensed with subject’s participation.
THE GRAND BIZARRE. MONDAY, FEBRUARY 11. BRATTLE THEATRE. PRESENTED BY THE DOCYARD. 35MM. $12.