Speaking Lightly is an ongoing series of interviews with members of Toronto’s experimental cinema community, conducted by filmmaker Stephen Broomer. Stephen’s participation in this community through his work as a filmmaker, film preservationist and writer ensures a depth of knowledge on the subject and more importantly, a candid conversation. The second installment is a discussion with Blake Williams, whose most recent film, Red Capriccio, was featured at Wavelengths 2014 (Toronto International Film Festival) and at the inaugural edition of Projections (New York Film Festival).
Blake Williams – Photograph by Stephen Broomer
Blake Williams’ early development as a visual artist, at a high school in his native Texas, fostered his interest in video. This interest would remain with him as he pursued a university education in art and art-making, in Boston and Toronto. Since the completion of his masters degree, Williams has produced a number of significant works for theatrical presentation, including a series of films for stereo viewing. These stereo, or, anaglyph 3D works betray Williams’ interest in perspectival simulation and distortion.
Williams’ artistic process had in its early stages an emphasis on impulsive action and conceptualism. As his work matured, it adopted a more advanced critical construction, coming in step with his expanding awareness of the constructive possibilities of both image editing and projection formats. Much of Williams’ early work is invested in duration and performance, nowhere more evident than in works like No Signal (2009), Space-ship (2010), and A Cold Compress (2010). Against this, the works that most clearly mark his maturation, his anaglyph 3D films made since 2012, are built through more filmic impulses, through editorial strategies, in juxtapositions and apparently heterodox sequencing, given coherence by Williams’ overarching themes. At the time of my writing, his anaglyph works comprise a suite of three films: Many a Swan (2012), in which the folding processes of origami are mirrored in a broad array of natural formations and human contrivances; Baby Blue (2013), in which multidimensional depth is forced on its images, images otherwise governed by threatening, monocular presences suggesting celestial, earthly, and fantastic sources; and Red Capriccio (2014), in which unusual consonances are formed between receding highways, dance floors, security lights, doughnut maneuvers, and the blinding red and blue strobe of a siren light on a police cruiser.
The subjects, events, themes, and conceits that populate Blake Williams’ recent stereoscopic filmmaking compose a playful survey of earthly phenomena, an investment that was suggested by his earliest works, but which has achieved momentum in his anaglyphic works. Williams’ films are host to wonders, extending presently from the simple wonders of those early films – a ladybug, a forest, a travelled landscape, a moon that becomes a sun – to complex wonders of folds and bends, monocular and binocular juxtapositions, and artificial lights that flash sympathetically between recreation and security. This late, discriminating assemblage of wonders is further subject to the motifs and comic punctuations that structure his maturing work.
-Stephen Broomer, January 2015
Stephen Broomer: How did you first come to work with moving images?
Blake Williams: I went to an art high school in Houston where students spend half of every day working in their art area. It’s kind of like a boot camp for mid-teens who consider themselves gifted and destined to be the next big thing in whatever they do. But when you’re 14 and applying for art school it basically just means you can draw decently well or you’ve become really specialized at doodling in your notebook and have a flair for “being creative.” Anyway, the school knows this so in the second year, they make everyone just spend the whole year sampling every medium, and the one I gravitated towards was video. I think my first video was about how the school Coke machine ate my money and I went into a rage trying to get it back, but I really fell in love with video as a tool when I started making these Tony Oursler-esque video installations in my junior year. I’d gut out cathode ray tube TVs and stick them up on people-height metal poles held up by concrete blocks that I made. I’d fill rooms with them and play videos of people’s faces on them where they’d either just be looking around or talking or what have you.
I was lucky enough to get a scholarship that allowed me to get a Bachelor’s degree in art in Boston. I didn’t have the storage space or means of transportation to continue making that kind of work there, though, so I started making mostly single-channel work — primarily conceptual work I shot with low grade DV camcorders. I enrolled in things like a Super 8 class taught by Louise Bourque, a 16mm course taught by Robert Fenz, and a video art course taught by Mary Ellen Strom, the latter of which is when I really started taking image-making itself more seriously, pushing my work away from crude gallery aesthetics and towards something more “cinematic.” And I’d have loved to keep working with film, but it was too expensive for me, and I prefer seeing what my footage will look like while I’m filming it in real time, so I haven’t shot anything on celluloid since those two film classes.
SB: Much of your formal education is in art practice – a BFA at Tufts, a masters of visual studies at University of Toronto. But while you’ve been making films, you’ve also maintained a critical practice, writing for Ion Cinema and Cinema Scope, and now you’re undertaking a doctorate in film studies. Do you feel that these roles, as critic/scholar and as artist, are entirely distinct, or is there an exchange between the two?
BW: At Tufts we were required to take a certain number of art history courses to get our degree, and they always had one cinema class we could take and I always chose that one — fundamental things like “Classics of World Cinema,” “Contemporary Chinese Cinema,” “Film Noir,” and a course on both Martin Scorsese and David Lynch, who I still don’t think do well paired in a course together. Eventually after finishing my Bachelor’s I moved to Toronto and started a film blog, which just seemed like the pragmatic thing to do for someone who was watching as many films as I was, if only for the sake of remembering them. Like many people I know who’ve started film blogs, I started off writing about every film I saw, and I kept that up for about 8 months before getting lazy with it.
Anyway, I started my Masters at University of Toronto, and once again took a course on cinema for one of my Art History electives, this one a course on Michael Snow taught by Bart Testa and Elizabeth Legge. It was my first real encounter with legit, scholarly film theory, and it immediately altered my art-making practice and opened up so many directions I wanted to go in. So in that sense, my continuing pursuit in cinema studies is a way of fueling my video-making, but I think the two work together. My own understanding of my interests in making work, and in what I value in cinema as a spectator, informs my take on the research I do, that I want to do, and that research, hopefully, makes the work itself richer, gives it more depth, etc.
SB: Your earliest extant video, The Moon (2007), involves cycles of the moon passing, each one rendered with the staid precision of a telescopic photograph, and eventually it assumes the familiar circular form of Pac Man, a smacking pie-slice for a mouth, chasing ghosts and encountering Mrs. Pac Man (in the form of a moon tinted yellow, a stand-in for the sun). This is funny in itself, but is made much funnier by the time that it takes for one thing to transform into the other. This work seems to share in the slow unveiling that runs through the spatial portraits that would follow it over the next several years – I’m thinking of the lingering stare of Hotel Video (2008), a survey of holy lights shining on post-Ike Galveston in The Storm (2009), the performance of empty room and obstructed projection in No Signal (2010). The slow reveal continues into the present, but in these early works it seems particularly geared toward breaking down familiar perceptions of symbols, landscapes, space.
BW: I know I was reading a lot of Carl Jung and William James when I made The Moon, fascinated by the way certain experiences, and varieties of experiences, functioned like microscopes zooming into the mind, and how symbols and images could begin as simple forms but could be unpacked to arrive at some extremely complex systems and histories. In this way these things stay alive and have an incredible energy. My infatuation with this material definitely influenced the structures of these pieces; I always preferred to begin with very simple images and ideas or scenarios so that nobody feels lost or overwhelmed, and I would let them develop organically, adding on new elements that are foreign enough so that they carry a certain intrigue, and then cut it off — end the film — with a cryptic moment or image that makes sense in the world of the preceding moments and images but that also doesn’t really sit comfortably in that network.
No Signal is a bit different, though, in that its narrative of events and climax weren’t dictated by my decision-making but by my own physical endurance — the ability to flap my hand around as vigorously as possible until it hurt too much to continue. But I do make sure to ease the viewer into the performative aspect in a very step-by-step manner — turning on the projector, waiting for it to find a signal, letting the “No signal” alert come up, then gently caressing the projector light and very gradually increasing the speed of my motions until the rainbow effect becomes discernible. It was very important to me that the audience knew how that phenomenon was being generated, and understood that the colours they were witnessing weren’t digitally inserted in post-production. Of course, they could be digital, but I try to erase any doubt about that by making the method as clear as possible. People can be very confused by technology, so I wanted to make sure everyone could tell how I was doing what I was doing, like a step-by-step demystification of a magic trick.
SB: Quite a bit of your work from 2010 onward uses technological interfaces. I see No Signal as the beginning of a strain in your work in which technologies make self-conscious appearances – as in the charts, grids, and diagrams of Depart (2011) and the clear implication of Google Earth in your installation Coorow-Latham Road (2011) and its compressed reworking (C-LR: Coorow-Latham Road For Those Who Don’t Have the Time ). The technologies always perform at the behest of an unseen operator, but there is a sense of autonomy cast around those gestures.
BW: No Signal was the first piece I made in my Masters program at University of Toronto. I had a studio for the first time in my life — a 300 square foot room with hardwood floors and high ceilings — and felt I should take advantage of the space. All of the work and experiments I did in that first year, including A Cold Compress and Space-ship, came in the time I spent with that studio. I was also looking into Bruce Nauman’s practice — the artist in his studio, the artist with his tools — and I was trying my hand at portraiture, in the loose sense of the term. These were usually self-portraits, but A Cold Compress was a portrait of another individual.
But to go back to ‘the artist and his tools,’ I wanted to do a series of work that was about the hand of the artist in a digital context, where the hand is felt or implied but not seen in the way it would be in a more tactile or analog image-making practice. Depart was the beginning of this, and the only other video in this line of thinking is Coorow-Latham Road. These both came out of a crisis I was having about the loss of my sense of authorship when I began to work with found footage that I was pulling from YouTube. So I wanted to see how much of my own hand or body, my own presence, I could work into these images that did not belong to me. Both Depart and Coorow-Latham Road started out with very different intentions in terms of what I wanted them to be, though. For Coorow, initially I was filming my screen while clicking and dragging some Google Streetview landscapes around with my mouse, and trying to do it in such a way that it looked as if I were physically there at this place holding a camera and doing a handheld pan. The results themselves weren’t too great, but it led me to something I loved.
SB: Tell me about your work in gallery installation. In the lead-up to Coorow-Latham Road, you developed a number of works for gallery or window display – here I’m thinking of Pupils (2009), Forest Video (2009), and Two Rainbows (2010). What drew you to work with video in this way? I realize that a lot of this work came in tandem with your MFA. Is that a form that you intend to continue working in in the future?
BW: Pupils was the response to an opportunity to exhibit in this peculiar window gallery space on Queen Street called Fly Gallery. At this point in my practice I still thought of my primary medium as being light rather than video, and I was particularly interested in the human eye’s physiological response to light. This piece demonstrated the pupillary reaction to brightness, so that when a light bulb suddenly turned on in front of a television monitor showing a video of an eyeball, the video eye would light up and its pupil would dilate just as ours do, standing in front of it. Getting the light bulb and the video to stay in sync is easily my favourite thing about the piece. It’s really a bizarre thing to notice. And then with Two Rainbows, I used two DLP projectors with slow color wheels to each project a white arch on parallel walls. The slow color wheels meant that when your eye moved across the image it produced a “rainbow effect” in your vision. So when viewers looked at the piece, they activated the titular rainbows themselves by looking back and forth at the two white arches.
I like the idea of keeping in touch with the line of thinking and problem-solving these pieces required, since they demanded a different kind of expectation and consideration of the audience than cinema pieces do, and I’m open to any future installation ideas that come to mind, though it’s been a while. Coorow-Latham Road in the gallery setting works well because it’s long and monotonous and this setting gives viewers the opportunity to bail whenever they feel uncomfortable, but I much prefer screening it in the cinema, the viewer locked in for the full duration. The film evolves over its 20 minutes from a conceptual piece into something experiential and vertiginous before finally revealing its structural narrative with the culmination of the 180 pan. This trajectory is lost if a viewer enters and/or exits the work at moments that aren’t its proper beginning and ending. It can get repetitive and boring, sure, but so do road trips.
SB: At the same time you were doing minimalist experiments, I’m thinking of Space-ship (2010), also made in your studio. Tell me more about this work.
BW: The first year of my MFA I was so overjoyed with having a studio for the first time in my life that I spent all of my time just filming it — spending week after week, early afternoon to night in the studio filming random tasks, gestures, and still lifes. Space-ship was one of the better things that came out of those experiments. It uses the same bouquet of flowers that appeared in A Cold Compress, though it’s a couple of weeks later so the flowers are more dried out and fragile. I got excited when I looked in my camera’s viewfinder and noticed a lens flare from the fluorescent light directly above the flowers sending this seraphic shaft of light down onto flowers, so I wanted to film it in a way that explained the source of the light. The video, then, is a performance in which I install the light, thus creating the lens flare, then tilt the camera down to remove it. But what goes down ought to go back up, so I gradually opened up the shutter until the room became super bright, then drifted the gaze back up to reveal that there was still only the single light bulb in the ceiling, before ending on a trick shot where the light is turned off but the lens flare remains. So it’s really just a playful study of a light bulb’s interaction with the camera lens; much like Pupils, in a sense.
SB: Speaking of the relation of your work to sight, and to the operations of the eyes, since 2011, you’ve been making work in anaglyph 3D. I have vivid memories of going to see films like House of Wax and It Came From Outer Space and Robot Monster in rep theatres as a kid, and so my association, and what I take to be the general association of 3D, is as a form for spectacular genre pieces. Of course, there are other uses of 3D more akin to the visual tradition that you’re operating in, for instance the 3D films of Lillian Schwartz, just as there’s a commercial market for holography and an artistic manifestation of holography. How did you first become interested in 3D filmmaking?
BW: I went to the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde section for the first time in 2011 and that year there was a 3D film there, about 45-50 minutes long, that was just this computer animated chair rotating or something, and I thought it was just awful. But it got me intrigued about the idea of experimental possibilities for 3D filmmaking, since the closest to a non-traditional use of the format I had seen up to that point was Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which I loved. I think there were also some rumblings about Godard’s interest in making a 3D feature that were starting to circulate, so it seemed like the right moment to dive into territory that was still largely unexplored, which is always exciting.
Naturally, the first thing I wanted to do was make a post-conversion of Michael Snow’s Wavelength into 3D — to just take that awful VHS rip that’s on YouTube and give it perspectival depth illusions and have the figures walking around like paper cutouts in three-dimensional space, and then have the film end, as it does, back in flatness. I actually started making it, and worked on it for about four months before I got tired of how tedious the process was (I only finished the first five minutes, and honestly it looked like crap) and decided to drop it and move on.
SB: Anaglyph has such a strange relation to the function of 3D, in that the eyes are separated at times, as expected, into two depths, but at other times, into a dialectic, two subjects battling for supremacy of vision or, away from conflict, toward collaboration, shaping into another space, beyond the third dimension, all through these time delays. What is it that draws you to anaglyph 3D in your own working process?
BW: I’ve come to embrace anaglyph, and have started exploiting its unique ways of handling color, but my initial employment of the technology was entirely for pragmatic purposes. To work in 3D on a budget (i.e. on a regular computer monitor), and to get the work screened at venues that aren’t equipped with the expensive 3D set-up almost every other 3D technique requires, anaglyph is the only way to go. It can be shown on any color display, so I’m not minimizing the exhibition restrictions this way. Many have nostalgia for anaglyph because it reminds them of 3D comics from their childhoods, but I never had any interest in or experience with any of that, so to me it’s just a chromatically-handicapped 3D method.
SB: I have a few questions about specific aspects of your 3D works. One of the things that struck me when I first saw Many a Swan was the ambition toward a kind of thematic coherence emerging out of a heterodox series – the heterodox series that, on contemplation, is clarified as a metaphoric thread, as in the bending of a leg, the turning of a bend, the force of the tectonic fold and bend that would birth the Grand Canyon. And so form and content achieve this simultaneity, in the folding up, in the enclosure to force a new form, that it takes from origami. Tell me more about how you relate this work to origami.
BW: After toying around with the Wavelength experiment, I remained interested in this idea of post-converting 2D footage into 3D, so my first 3D film, Many a Swan, is essentially concerned with the most fundamental way of taking a flat plane and making it sculptural: folding it. It was only after working on it for several weeks that the origami analogy became clear to me, so I worked allusions to that tradition into the entire film. I became very moved by the work of Akira Yoshizawa through my research, so wanted to dedicate the film to him, hence the film ending on footage of him instructing an audience on how to fold a paper swan. For me the Grand Canyon footage was always about a new layer to the concept of folding, since the canyon is essentially a folded landscape. Much of the footage of the Grand Canyon that is on YouTube pertains to that Skywalk they built on it about ten years ago. It’s a really ugly structure, but I like the dissonance between the man-made structure and the natural architecture around it, so I let a small chapter of the film dwell on its construction.
SB: Baby Blue extends from this same sense of conceptual or thematic joining of images sourced out of the ether. There, you’re working with these monocular subjects – the astronaut, the Cyclops, the one-eyed Bengali cat. This thread signs a particular confrontation with the bifocal of the anaglyph. You once said to me that this monocular thread is broadcast first in the head of the astronaut, which is, in your words, consumed by a single, central window into the world.
BW: Yes, this film is very much about the concept of the Cyclops, and the beauty and perils of not only monocular (single-view) experience of the world, but also myopia. First, it’s there in the film’s 3D methodology, which like Many a Swan is also dependent on post-conversions of 2D footage, though here the 3D is created by showing the same footage to each eye a few frames apart so that the horizontal motions of the camera or its subjects can be seen from two distinct perspectives. But of course, it’s also there in the footage itself. Once again almost all of the video was culled from YouTube, and it all deals with travel, disaster (mostly from technological failures), and the singular, imprisoned gazes of various subjects unable to see outside themselves. The film is bookended by images pertaining to NASA and space travel, and the utter failure of that endeavor to bring us to something beyond our world. It culminates in a stereo-temporal stare at the body of a mutant, one-eyed kitten, thrown into the world dead on arrival — our eyes see this event at discernibly distinct moments, creating an image superimposition rather than a unified, stereoscopic image (not unlike the famous 3D split screen moment that Godard used in Adieu au langage a year later).
SB:There’s clearly a comic gesture running through Many a Swan and Baby Blue, that cohabitates with their suffering humanism. Their comic edge was a prelude to Red Capriccio, a richly comic work that draws its title from Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky’s capriccio compositions. Tell me a bit about the influences bearing on this work.
BW: I’m glad some are finding them funny! Red Capriccio especially, as you mention, needs humour. I wanted the viewer to feel whiplash from the tonal shifts — from the brooding to the nostalgic to the euphoric to the cheesiness of the tawdry dance scene and finally into ecstasy with the spinning toy police car. As with Many a Swan, the historical influences arrived during production, as opposed to having been pre-conceived heading into it. I found the footage of the police car and edited it to together to make what ended up being the film’s first movement. I noticed that it was a Chevy Caprice, which reminded me of capriccio paintings and classical music compositions (hence Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, as their capriccios are the most effectively energetic, seductive, and jarring I’ve heard). From these pieces came the structuring principles and tonal cues, and the thematic nature of the footage (the Montreal highway and the party room) followed suit. Each of the 3D films has had more music in it than the last, and in retrospect I’ve noticed that I’m allowing these music selections to guide and shape the films, either rhythmically or emotionally. I’m probably going to continue playing with that since I like the results I’ve gotten so far.
A new project I’m working on now has an even stronger—and stranger—reliance on sound and music, and since I shot most of the footage myself this time (using both a Fuji W3 3D camera and the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera), I’m getting re-acclimated with composing from source materials that don’t have that alien quality that found footage often has. Sound has become one strategy for me to de-familiarize the images.
SB: In your earlier works I sense an interest in working with found images and with static visual composition, and with, as you describe, impulses toward or away from tactility, but the mature films, say the ones beginning with Many a Swan, while still extending the visual aspect into new territory, deal with programmatic elements. That is to say, they compose an experience of obscurity as dense as one can imagine modern obscurity to be – the programmatic source, be it Tchaikovsky or Yoshizawa, is concealed, transmuted into the form itself. How do you arrive at these programmatic aspects to your work?
BW: They almost always arrive as impulses, prompted by some sort of initial direction I happened upon from working through a bit of footage, or testing out a quick idea. And as I mentioned before, they become guiding principles for completing the work — filling it out, complicating the structure or technical methodologies, etc. I tend to eventually try to bury these elements in the final product, though; obscuring them beneath and within the work so that it doesn’t leap out and over-determine a reading of it or point to a line of thinking that will negate the other possible, equally valid pathways through it. My hope with each piece is that it will suggest enough that it lingers, but withhold enough that it remains plasmatic, unable to calcify into a final, static object in the viewer’s mind and memory. It’s tricky maintaining that balance, though, since so many of my pieces originate from structural forms that are ultimately very carefully calculated. But solving that problem is probably my favourite part of the production process.
Blake Williams – Selected Filmography:
Red Capriccio, 2014, HD Video (Anaglyph 3D), 6:48
Baby Blue, 2013, HD Video (Anaglyph 3D), 10:00
C-LR: Coorow-Latham Road for Those Who Don’t Have the Time, 2013, HD Video, 1:46
Many a Swan, 2012, HD Video (Anaglyph 3D), 5:43
Depart, 2012, HD Video, 10:00
Coorow-Latham Road, 2011, HD Video, 20:00
A Cold Compress, 2010, HD Video, 12:13
Space-ship, 2010, HD Video, 3:11
No Signal, 2009, HD Video, 4:33
Forest Video, 2009, HD Video, 3:47
Ladybug Video, 2009, HD Video, 1:50
The Storm, 2009, HD Video, 7:17
Hotel Video, 2009, HD Video, 5:00
The Moon, 2007, HD Video, 6:37
About the Author
Stephen Broomer is a filmmaker, film historian and preservationist based in Toronto, Ontario. He recently completed his PhD in Communication and Culture with an emphasis on the history of the Canadian avant-garde film. In late 2014, his work was the subject of a book published by the Canadian Film Institute, The Transformable Moment: Films by Stephen Broomer, edited by Scott Birdwise and Tom McSorley.