Richard Kerr's Cinematic Beacons
A look at TIFF's current exhibition Postindustrial and Richard Kerr's ruminations on his filmmaking and artistic practices
As one of the few organizations in Canada actively preserving and restoring Canadian film, TIFF also maintains the collection of the Film Reference Library and exhibits film-related artifacts, including Richard Kerr’s radiant lightboxes, or “film weavings.” The experimental filmmaker, visual artist, and professor threads strips of 35mm and 65mm film together to create a sequence of static images divorced from their onscreen motion, thereby revealing film’s formal qualities of light, darkness, colour, and translucence. While Kerr boasts his own extensive filmography dating back to the mid-’70s, all of the film featured in Postindustrial was donated to him by projectionists or salvaged while teaching experimental film at Concordia University and the University of Regina.
Curator Laurel Saint-Pierre has assembled a series of lightboxes and video works that nod to Kerr’s 2004-05 exhibition Industry at the Images Festival, in which Kerr “mimick[ed] Hollywood’s factory model and glamorous production values [and] undercut these references to the motion picture industry through electro/chemical experimentation” (Brett Kashmere, Taking Inventory). With Postindustrial, Kerr continues his efforts to reify the fleeting moments of cinema by deconstructing film and presenting it as a series of images.
In his series Ascending Leaders, Kerr aims to reveal what is traditionally unseen by displaying leaders — the beginning and end portions of film attached to the head or tail of a film reel to help thread it through the projector — from old, salvaged Hollywood trailers. Serial numbers and words like “HEAD” line the frames, offering a rare look at elements typically only seen by projectionists. In others like Chart Control (Blue), the resulting effect of the variously coloured frames interwoven in a ROYGBIV pattern suggests a deliberate aesthetic choice and affirms Kerr’s instincts as a visual artist.
Conversely, Kerr also intentionally renders elements of the medium less and less visible in works like Untitled (2014), where he has degraded and distorted film through various tests; he submerges it in boiling water and buries it in dirt to tests the limits of the emulsion. Only when looking at the individual frames up close does one register the scratches that have left translucent, negative space. In Rhythmic One and Rhythmic Two (2014), Kerr weaves together red- and purple-tinged frames from NFB animator Norman McLaren’s films to show how natural degradation can occur in beautiful and controlled ways.
Blue Drill. 28 min, 4 sec. Drilled holes into canister of 35mm film left to expose during a full moon. 2014.
His video works also attempt to protect the materiality of film that is challenged by the digital form. To create Blue Drill (2016), Kerr pierced a canister of 35mm film, resulting in a series of random holes that he then exposed to moonlight, processed, and converted into a video to show the process. In Demi-Monde (2014), he overlays distorted frames onto each other over the course of five hours, resulting in an illusion of movement so subtle one might mistake it for a static image.
TIFF chatted with Kerr about his filmmaking practice, his choices as a visual artist, and what he sees for the future of experimental cinema.
Where did your fascination with the materiality of film originate?
RK: In the early days, “image sequencing” was more of a fascination and that started with baseball cards. I spent a lot of time with [them], their images and their text, and put them in sequences — by team, by colour. The next time I remember handling images would have been family photographs; being eight or nine years old, you’re getting interested in your family and you have a shoebox full of pictures that no one’s organized. I remember a lot of the time doing that obsessively; it was an imaginative and enjoyable exercise. I was a self-taught photographer in the sense that everyone builds his or her own dark room in the basement and mixes up the chemistry and reads photo magazines and tries things, so there was years of that. The takeaway from that exercise was that I wasn’t very good at mixing chemicals or the technical side of managing a dark room and getting professional prints; what I was interested in was taking the pictures and putting them in a certain order. I went back to school as a mature student and took a film course at Sheridan College and the rest follows. But it’s baseball cards [laughs].
I’m fascinated with the still image and to this day, I’m working on a project with still images and sequencing. I’m creating these 20- or 30-foot scrolls of black-and-white imagery that I’m hand-colouring and re-sequencing. The images I’m working with are of the social-documentary, American-landscape vernacular, and those would have been the same pictures that spoke to me as a teenager from the street photographers Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand. So, it all goes back to the still photograph for me — all the time. What you find early in life can stick with you all through life.
Your early experimental films were produced during your time with the “Escarpment School” in the ’70s at Sheridan College. Could you tell us about that period?
RK: There are two different aspects to that: there’s Sheridan College itself in that historical period, and then what is the Escarpment School? Was it a school with an academic direction and a poetic voice, or is it a myth that’s been established and carried on? I do not recall any manifesto or published statement or declaration at the time.
Now that I’ve been a professor for 35 years, I look at Sheridan College more through that view than as a student at this point, but one has to remember how new that infrastructure of community colleges was in the '70s in Ontario. They just mushroomed up; there were 30 or 40 new community colleges in the province. With all this newness, there isn’t a precedent or history — or academic standards. When I went to Sheridan in the mid-'70s, there was all this newness with lack of history and a very iconoclastic dean who hired a very eclectic faculty that was American-educated. They had a mandate to teach industrial methodology — it was a technical-training college, after all — but they rolled out this art-school atmosphere and it was very exciting. And within that, you have what is certainly known by now through Brett Kashmere’s essay about the Escarpment School. It represented a type of filmmaking — autobiographical, landscape, time, memory — that still echoes today. The uniqueness was that you became what you screened. Our teachers had this provocative screening list for us every week that was fresh and new, whether it was Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow, or Joyce Wieland… it was all experimental, quirky-documentary in nature as opposed to state-produced media from the National Film Board and CBC. If you see these films and teachers talk about them in a certain way, you’re influenced, and that is remarkable. The team of Peter Mallet, Harvey Honsberger, Jeff Paull, Richard Hancox, Jim Cox, and Lucie Hall held a hot bat as educators at the time. They were dialled in to what was happening in film and video culture. They created an atmosphere of questioning and doing, and taught us how to teach ourselves. It was the beginning of “look, make, learn, teach” for me.
How do you feel your practice has evolved from your early experimental filmmaking days to your later explorations in the visual arts?
RK: The central passion has been photography. Photography as a static image gets me to the visual arts, which I would see myself as today: a visual artist as much as a filmmaker. I think back to Sheridan College again and the screening list, the filmmakers presented to us… the takeaway filmmakers, the ones that struck me at the time and have stuck with me over the years — not in what they make, but how they make it, and the rules that they have about making and process — are Jack Chambers and Michael Snow. If I think about Chambers and Snow, what’s similar and unique about them, they’re both trained visual artists who discovered film, and their practices are divided amongst film and other forms of visual art — especially Snow. They’ve been my primary influences.
I went through about 25 years of being obsessed with 16mm experimental film, but I was always a reluctant filmmaker. There was always a thought that there had to be something else. My reluctance towards filmmaking was that it took a lot of technology, a lot of preparation... you often needed people to work with, you needed an infrastructure to screen the work. There are a lot of moving parts, not to mention the expense of the materials and later, the environmental concern of the analogue film medium. I always had a lot of questions about experimental film and its place in the larger art world. I was always more a practitioner of cinema than a lover of cinema. I actually studied very few films over my lifetime. I have a very small canon that I discovered early and that I kept responding to. I had my films, I studied them, I studied them, I studied them... there was some growth in the list over the years, then a reduction in the list [laughs]. But on the other hand, my interest in the visual arts grew. I taught myself the history of photography, painting, and sculpture.
Amongst all of this, there’s this juggernaut of digital culture and technology coming up the middle. So while I was losing practical interest in working with 16mm film by the '90s, I had to deal with video and digital as a professor — a responsibility to understand and teach. I recognize myself as a teacher-practitioner; teaching takes up the majority of my time and thinking, but part of that job requires me to stay fresh and make artwork. I’ve always felt a pull towards studio work, a type of practice that doesn’t involve technology [and] is low-cost in the materials vis-à-vis recycling. I didn’t want to get caught up any further than I already have with grant writing and careerism... that had to be reduced in order to free up time to make the work — time is what we have the least of. That’s kind of where I am now with a studio-based practice, and I still do time-based work in digital and with found footage and so forth, like we’ll see in my Wavelengths screening on May 10.
That seems like a very unique process that not many people have; your pedagogy informs your practice, and your practice informs your teaching in this ongoing, cyclical rhythm.
RK: It’s the only way I know how to teach and make work. The question that I’m dealing with now [in terms of] university retirement is what will happen when I don’t have the joy and the push-pull of a younger generation [and] working with the students side by side? How will that affect what I do? It will certainly move me further away from digital because I won’t have access to what the university represents now — computers [laughs] — or, because I make all my work in collaboration with students, will I have access to the youth and energy a university generates? So, I’m preparing for this next shift in studio sensibility. But not to worry, because I want to get further away from computers and further away from all that represents. I enjoy tape and scissors, paints and found photographs, and recycled films. There’s a challenge in making beautiful stuff with modest materials.
Your signature “Motion Picture Weavings” make use of all aspects of a film reel, from the leaders, to the scenes themselves, to the credits, in various formats including 35mm, 65mm, and IMAX film. If you had to pick a favourite lightbox or series, which would it be and why?
RK: I don’t think of it in those terms, but I suppose Ascending Leaders, which is a newer series I did and a newer weaving structure — kind of a vertical composition rather than a horizontal-vertical traditional weaving. I would say those are my favourite, but are they because they’re new? I think the way it works is whatever I’m working on has to be the favourite; the process of making them is a very intuitive, stream-of-consciousness physical way of working. The other game is I always have to try new things, and that’s always been the challenge with this project. How much can you do with the form of weaving? It’s an ancient form; the materials you’re working with only allow you to do certain things, so how do you keep it fresh and keep evolving the forms? So that kind of replaces what’s “favourite”. But I think there are ones that are just fresher and stronger than others. I have categories for these: there are some where I really play with the material of the film and decompose it, and therefore become much more abstract; and then I have ones that are more literal and readable, like Space Program and Ascending Leaders. You know what you’re looking at, it’s just a matter of how it’s been arranged and collaged. There are others that are more painterly, where I engage the material in a very organized, graphic way and create designs.
There’s another category that I guess sort of addresses the question of favourites. I do commissions for people; I’ve maybe done ten commissions at this point. We have a basic discussion about size and the options of materials, but they inevitably just say “do what you want for me.” So that puts me in the position of thinking about the person I’m making it for, and whether to put ironic material that I think refers to their life in some sort of weird way [laughs]. That’s a whole other process, but quite enjoyable, because most of the time I’m making these for no audience at all, but everyone’s the audience at once. I don’t mass-produce these, but I do want to put these weavings in the right hands, like institutional collections such as TIFF and the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Saskatchewan. But I’m also interested in doing these for people who consider themselves serious art collectors and would give them a good home. So yes, they’re for sale [laughs].
There is an inherent tension between your interest in salvaging film and purposely wearing it down through intense manipulation when considered in the larger context of film-preservation efforts. How do you reconcile this paradox?
RK: I don’t see a paradox. In the life of a roll of film, I sort of get the film that’s on the way to the dumpster. I get the film that no one else wants — the preservationists, the librarians, the academics — they’ve all given up on any film that I have, in one form or another. So I don’t feel any responsibility to be a curator or archivist. This is just material, and whatever I wanna do with the material, I’ll do with the material. Part of it is just the joy of experimenting with material, and that gets you to the whole cookbook of standard techniques of manipulating film emulsion. I tend to do it all organically — I don’t go anywhere near chemistry or the toxic stuff. That’s somewhat political for me; I am engaged in this recycling so I take it somewhat seriously ... the idea that I should keep it as organic as possible. And plus, I just don’t wanna play with chemicals. Demi-Monde was very dirty and nasty to make; it was the melting of film, emulsions, ink... it wasn’t a healthy experience, for sure. So anything I do with film is as organic as possible.
Demi-Monde. (38min, 31sec excerpt of 5-hr, 12-min slide show of 160 digitized handmade 35mm slides). 2014.
As a professor of experimental film, why do you believe it is important to continue educating about film in an increasingly digital age?
RK: The question you ask is a huge question, especially for me looking back on this unique career I’ve had being a professor of fine art practices. There’s an administrative response, a societal response, and an individual response. I think the short answer is ... universities are in a position to only do so much. They’re administrative and conservative by nature, and not trusted custodians or definers of what art is and what it is to be an artist. What universities do well — and the only thing they should do, quite frankly — is be in the business of granting academic degrees and all the good things that come with that, which is substantial in the bigger picture.
At the end of the day, it comes down to the individual, and that’s why I enjoy reflecting on this, because my background is not at all academic, yet I’ve spent half my life as a professor in the fine arts. So, boy, talk about an outsider-insider [dynamic]. I’ve been very fortunate and worked hard to have had a career as a teacher. So I do spend a lot of time reflecting on what can be done, what to say to young students and artists who ask me for academic advice. Often it’ll be, “Well, do you want a degree, or do you want to be an artist? Because those are different conversations we’re about to have. I hope you’re not in a hurry [laughs]. From my experience, it’s all about… “look, make, learn, teach” yourself. Education is experiential.