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 third installment is a discussion with Eva Kolcze, whose most recent film, All That Is Solid, explores the utopian visions that inspired the Brutalist movement and the material and aesthetic connection between concrete and celluloid. Broomer and Kolcze are presently collaborating on Radenmuller, an experimental film about the disappearance of John Paul Radenmuller, Toronto Island’s first lighthouse keeper.
Cinema finds a natural analogue in architecture. For filmmaking, as a constructive act, assembles an experience as a blueprint, each frame a tile, each sequence a joining pathway. With cinema’s labyrinthine structures, its myriad forms and influences, crowded more than a century on by canons, cults, and more hermetic orders, it is likewise tempting to view it in archeological and geological terms – as a thing that ages, fading, gathering dust and dirt, a field grown tangled and rough by its own history. Since 2012, Eva Kolcze has developed films of visceral materiality. She fashions her films out of the surface marks of chemistry and the refiguration and destruction of emulsion across the frame. These films are the work of an artist concerned primarily with elaborating on the existing image.
Kolcze’s films tend to be photographed in environments of an immediate personal or visual interest. Markings 1-3 was shot at Phil Hoffman’s Film Farm in 2011. Feet tread a path, overexposed by thick netting of branches. When the feet stop, day-lit scenes of life on the farm – a barn, a bale of hay, a lone tree in a field, a herd of cows – are ‘marked’ by Kolcze’s finger, which enters the frame and, in a burst of scratches directly on the film plane, lets off an ‘electric charge’ to each scenes’ contents. Even in this early film, the setting was subject to further visitation – and reconstruction – through the artist’s direct interference in the frame. This approach continues in the works that followed, such as Modern Island, which Kolcze filmed at the decaying buildings of Centreville amusement park on Toronto Islands. Modern Island is not a simple record of this environment, but a study in emulsion debris and watermarks that serve as a counterpoint to the symmetrical tiling and geometric forms that bear out the buildings’ modernist origins. Her camera finally discovers a nest in the steel girder of one of these buildings.
Kolcze’s collision of material process and environmental subject finds its apotheosis in All That Is Solid, a study of three Brutalist buildings, all sites of higher learning in Toronto. Her material interference in the image had, by 2014, become much more pronounced than watermarks and debris. By working with corrosive chemicals to alter and enhance the image, Kolcze shifts from revealing her images to burrowing into them, digging trenches into the film plane. In All That Is Solid, the monolithic facades of York University’s Ross Building, and of University of Toronto’s Robarts Library and Progress Campus, shudder and wilt, hollowed out by the abrasions of chemistry, turned to ethereal, permeable presences. Kolcze has drawn two physical realities – the concrete building and the film image – into a spiritual dialogue, leaving the experiencer to ruminate on this exchange between the two, the pliable monument, the permanent image.
-Stephen Broomer, May 2015
Stephen Broomer (SB): How did you first become involved in making films?
Eva Kolcze (EK): I studied filmmaking at Ryerson University. We used 16mm Bell and Howell cameras and edited our films with rewinds and viewers. The classes I took focused primarily on narrative, industry-driven filmmaking. But in one of my classes I was shown Fernand Léger’s Ballet mecanique, Joris Ivens’ Regen and most importantly Maya Deren’s At Land. These films had a huge impression on me, especially At Land.
After completing my studies at Ryerson I enrolled in the Integrated Media program at OCAD [the Ontario College of Art and Design], where I was taught by Paulette Phillips and Johanna Householder, among others. At OCAD, my work consisted of video performances, installations and short diary films. I also made sculptures, paintings, and manipulated Polaroid images in a wonderful class called Experimental Photography taught by Barbara Astman. In my third year of studies I took part in OCAD’s Off-Campus program in Florence, Italy. Besides the weekly art history course, the program was an independent study. Having this freedom from the typical studio arts assignment structure was hugely beneficial to my work. During this time I started making projects based around urban spaces. I had a small mini-DV camera that I’d set up in the streets and shoot with, blending in amongst all the tourists, who were often my subjects. My fourth year thesis project at OCAD was a four channel video installation that combined footage shot from different street corners around Toronto.
SB: So early on you developed an interest in architecture and cityscape as a subject. This is still evident in remnants of your early work, for instance, the video portion of your installation 775 King St. West (2010), in which you walk the perimeter of a missing building on the eponymous King Street address in Toronto. In the video, the nature of your gesture is clear by the trace of a two-story house, left behind on a neighboring wall in the center of the composition, which seems to dictate the perimeter that you’re walking. This foreshadows metaphors that drive your work later on, involving the traces and markings left behind in a changing landscape, correspondences between past and present; all of that seems to begin here, but still this work is very different formally, perhaps even incompatible with what came after it.
EK: I began working on 775 King St. West in 2009. I was in a car driving down King Street when I saw the striking imprint on the side of a building that resembled a blackened house. I did some research on the address and found out that the recently demolished building had been 110 years old and for the past 30 years was home to Paul Wolf Electric and Lighting Supply. It had been torn down to make way for a condo development, Minto King West. In the piece, I trace the outline of the former building’s foundation with my footsteps to represent its absent structure. I recorded the creaky sound of my footsteps pacing across a hardwood floor and synced it to the footage in the video. These types of performative gestures extend into my work with film, especially Markings 1-3, in which my fingers and feet explore the spaces and objects of the Film Farm (Independent Imaging Retreat).
775 King St West was finished in 2010. It was the last time I worked in installation and also the last project I shot in HD. I maintain a hybrid art and filmmaking practice that isn’t bound to any single medium or form of presentation. I tend to develop projects based around concepts and ideas that inform the medium and materials I choose to work with.
SB: We first came to know each other when you were working as the front line at the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre; we had come, by one interest or another, to invest ourselves in learning about avant-garde film. Do you think that this immersion in avant-garde film has influenced your own work, and in what ways?
EK: The CFMDC’s strong avant-garde film collection had a major impact on my work. My immersion in the collection encouraged me to work with film. One of the major advantages to working for the CFMDC was my constant access to the works in the collection. I was impressed with the visual potential of film, the way that it captured light and space. A big part of my job was to inspect the 16mm and 35mm prints before they were shipped to festivals. I would wind through reels of film by hand, checking for scratches, splices and general damage. I took notice of works that used optical printing, hand painting and other frame-by-frame techniques. I began making work with 16mm in 2010, one year after starting at CFMDC.
SB: In the past few years your work has achieved a deliberated exchange between form and subject, the prime example of this being All That Is Solid (2014), where techniques such as bleach etching are set to the task of imposing a rigidity on the image while the subjects – these looming, monumental concrete buildings – become porous. What I suspect is that film materiality is becoming an inexhaustible metaphor in your work, that you’ve begun to combine form with subjects to create themes that can pass beyond architecture, that one could find all kinds of artifacts and movements and figures out of history that would be enhanced by these aesthetic strategies. How has your interest in filmmaking evolved along this line, of form and content, and how has your specific interest in its materiality focused since your first introduction to it?
EK: My interest in working with these techniques began at the Film Farm in 2011, when I made Markings 1-3. Two months after the farm I did a residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point on the Toronto Islands where I shot footage of park facility buildings, built in a 1960s modernist style. I hand-processed the footage in the darkroom at Artscape and the images of the buildings were covered in splotches that resembled a rash. The optimistic little buildings I had captured were weathered and rotting and I felt that this process had imprinted itself onto the filmstrip. The rash pattern on my film led me to research handmade film techniques. I was incredibly inspired by the processes and film works of Carl E. Brown, Jürgen Reble and Louise Bourque.
In All That Is Solid, footage of Brutalist buildings was decayed using a number of processes such as mordançage (bleach etching), reticulation and soaking it in baths of diluted reversal bleach. I used processes that actually changed the structure of the image. I wanted to make the concrete buildings warp, morph, dissolve and then re-form. I learned the mordançage and reticulation techniques in a workshop taught by Kevin Rice at LIFT [the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto]. The mordançage technique creates veiling and bubbling within the emulsion. Large sections of the image peel away and become like fabric blowing in the wind, but the outline and basic structure of the image is retained. All That Is Solid uses these decay techniques to draw attention to the material aspects of concrete. The buildings have an angular, powerful footprint within the urban landscape but I see their structures as fluid and ever changing. While it appears strong, concrete is subject to decay through prolonged exposure to moisture.
SB: You’ve worked very closely with the Canadian diary filmmaker Philip Hoffman. When I think of your work with Phil, I tend to think of Markings 1-3, which, as you mentioned, you made at the Film Farm; a gesture re-occurs throughout, a finger appearing in the frame to give off a spark – really an absence, carved into the image – designed to evoke lightning. Looking at your filmography, I would be inclined to identify this film as a turning point in your practice, as you began altering the film plane. Tell me about this work.
EK: Yes, Markings 1-3 was definitely a turning point in my practice. I appreciated the time and space I had at the Film Farm to just experiment and explore, a stark contrast from my past experiences with film as this precious thing that you sent away to a lab and hoped for the best. Hand processing is a joyful experience, moments after the filmstrip emerges from the chemistry and the images appear, there is always a strong sense of mystery and excitement. In Markings 1-3 I explore multiple spaces and surfaces of the farm using superimposition, scratching, painting, tinting and toning.
SB: You’re presently working on a film in collaboration with Phil – By the Time We Got to Expo – using footage from the 1967 Expo; you showed a rough cut of this at the Gladstone Hotel recently. How did that project come together, and how is it proceeding?
EK: Phil came to me in December 2014 with the interest in making a project using two films shot at Expo 67. What struck me about the footage from Expo was how each individual country is represented as a pavilion, an elaborate architectural form. The footage also contained crowds of people, masses of bodies moving through the event, feet climbing up stairs and featureless faces merged and blurred together by the photochemical techniques that we used to alter the film.
Footage from both films was re-photographed onto black and white 16mm. We hand processed the footage, tinted and toned sections and applied the bleach etching technique to other sections. The film’s soundtrack was crafted by artist and composer Joshua Bonnetta using a series of looped recordings of the scratches and scuffs extracted from the film’s optical track. Since presenting the film at the Gladstone Hotel in January we’ve re-visited the edit and made a number of adjustments.
SB: You and I have a very similar life experience in the sense that we’re the same age, grew up in the same area, experienced many of the same activities that middle-class Toronto youth experienced in the 80s and 90s. This is one of the reasons I so strongly identify with your film Modern Island (2011), a work of static compositions exploring the architecture of the Centreville Amusement Park on Toronto Island. What does this subject mean to you?
EK: Modern Island evolved out of my explorations on the Toronto Island during a residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point in 2011. The first shot of the film features a pile of broken up concrete barriers. The barriers were found on a beach along with pieces of sidewalk, driftwood and garbage. They stood out to me because of their unique angular formation, echoed in the structure of the nearby 60s era building, a washroom facility for the Centreville amusement park. As I shot the building I began to notice its little design details, including a brick pattern on the exterior walls. The building was weather-beaten and rough around the edges. Wind and moisture had worn away at its foundation.
A number of other facility buildings and pavilions are featured in the film. These structures reflect the period in the island’s history when it officially became a park. In the late 1950s the City of Toronto took over the islands and designated them as parkland. As a result most of the houses on the Toronto Island were torn down, except for those on the Western half. The park facility buildings, now 50 years old, are experiencing their own transition as the surrounding wildlife of the island has embraced the little structures.
SB: Since 2011, you’ve returned to Artscape and made further films – we’re making one together right now, in fact – and you’ll also be running a film workshop there this spring.
EK: Artscape Gibraltar Point is a very special place for me. I’ve stayed there twice, both times to work on film projects. In June, Zoë Heyn-Jones and I will be running a weeklong workshop and residency at Artscape called Film For Artists – Site and Cycle. Zoë is a filmmaker, programmer and PhD student. The hands-on filmmaking residency will introduce participants to 16mm and Super 8 filmmaking, hand-processing and artisanal filmmaking techniques. The residency will focus on the specific geography of the Toronto Islands and the project that participants create will be based around this theme.
SB: With Badlands, your interest seems to depart from the peopled spaces of the island or the city altogether, turning your attention to natural formations.
EK: This shift in subject matter developed as a result of my experiments with decay during the research phase of All That Is Solid. I decayed strips of black leader in wet soil and discovered images that looked like mountains and hills imprinted on its surface. I decided to combine these images with footage of the Cheltenham Badlands, a small patch of badlands in Southern Ontario. My husband Spencer and I shot footage of the landscape using Super 8 and HD cameras. The Super 8 camera had a broken, fluctuating aperture that created these wonderful, spontaneous fades to black. The day we shot the film it was sunny and windy. Clouds would roll in and then clear away causing the landscape to shift from light to dark.
SB: You work across media, and I think this is true of everything you’ve done since Modern Island, in that you use both digital and film images in your work. However, the way in which you’ve used them has become increasingly refined; from a work like Modern Island, in which video is present in the digital slowing-down of footage to linger on the marks of process, and little more, there comes a work like Badlands, which involves a more complex exchange between media, where you’re rephotographing digital footage to film and then subjecting it to these chemical processes.
EK: My recent work has been intensely focused on material details within the frame. The workflow of my recent films involves scanning footage at 2K and editing it on a large monitor. In many instances I slow all decayed, degraded or hand processed footage down to 5-10% of its original speed. Exaggerating these fleeting images has been an important aspect of Modern Island, Badlands and All That Is Solid.
SB: What was the conceptual process behind All That Is Solid? How did the work evolve from how you had originally conceived it?
EK: All That Is Solid was originally an experimental documentary that included decayed film elements, interviews and a performance, and was my thesis film for my MFA at York University. Eventually I stripped down the project after I realized I couldn’t make all of these elements work together as a whole. I decided to focus on exploring three Brutalist constructs: the Ross Building at York University, University of Toronto Scarborough Campus and Robarts Library.
SB: When I look at Modern Island or Markings 1-3, these are works that come out of solitude and independence, but with All That is Solid you were working with a cinematographer, a composer, and so on. An image that turned up on the cover of LIFT’s seasonal workshop publication shows an elaborate track that you had constructed around the Ross Building at York University. What was it like to work with a crew, and in that style of controlled production, on this film?
EK: Working with a crew on All That Is Solid was a wonderful experience for me. Each crewmember had a major hand in making the project successful. My husband Spencer Barclay was the Executive Producer and Production Manager. He managed all aspects of production, including the five days of principal photography. Noé Rodríguez was the Director of Photography. He made the camera move beautifully, we worked together to construct shots that carefully explored intricate spaces of each of the structures. Paige Barclay, Nick Whelan and Ian Carleton worked tirelessly to build and tear down 40-50 foot dolly track set-ups. Nick Storring created elements for the richly textured soundtrack ranging from hollow airy echoes to distant pianos by recording, extracting and decaying analog elements in his studio. Scott McIntyre did all the color grading and intricate post-production work.
SB: I know that Bruno Zevi was an important source for you on this project, and it seems to me that in his writings he advanced something of a poetics of the void, the relation between interior and exterior becoming that of void and occupancy, fill and stencil. Zevi writes, “Architecture does not consist in the sum of the width, length and height of the structural elements which enclose space, but in the void itself, the enclosed space in which man lives and moves. Internal space, that space which cannot be completely represented in any form, which can be grasped and felt only through direct experience, is the protagonist of architecture.”
EK: Zevi’s views on architectural space reflect my interest in creating states of absence and presence in All That Is Solid. In the film, we are presented with two main spaces; the exteriors of buildings and the metaphorical interior created by decay and degradation. Decaying film is my way of creating a void, carving out a negative space that is totally my own. Both exterior and interior spaces in All That Is Solid are sites of instability and transformation.
SB: Right now you’re working on a series that you refer to as the Dust Cycles series. Tell me about that.
EK: Dust Cycles is a series of films that deal with decay and materiality within the Canadian landscape. Part of the series was shot in Alberta during a residency at the Banff Centre in 2014. I was interested in capturing the geological formations of Alberta, from the Rocky Mountains to rolling, barren rock formations of the Badlands. The Rockies are slowly eroding and over hundreds and thousands of years will continue to get smaller. In Banff you’re completely boxed in by the Rockies, the horizon is totally invisible. The Badlands are the opposite of the Rockies, a carved-out, almost lunar landscape. The roads descend down into a valley as you approach Drumheller, where I shot most of the footage.
The major component of the Dust Cycles series is a film that takes place at the Scarborough Bluffs. The Bluffs are a long string of cliffs at the eastern edge of Toronto and are in a constant state of erosion. One area of interest is a house on Meadowcliffe Drive that has been slowly sliding off the edge of the Bluffs for the past 20 years. Half of it hangs off a cliff and pieces of the house have fallen into the mud valley below. In order to halt further erosion the city of Toronto created artificial beaches and land formations at the base of cliffs. As a result, there’s a type of wetlands that has formed, which actually functions to filter the groundwater that is flowing out of the bluffs and into the lake.
SB: The kind of interiority represented by your decay and destruction of footage seems to me a means of declaring your presence and individuality in these works, and by that, against the broader courses of history – be they architectural or, as in your recent work, geological. The external world that you’re photographing, that of the object, the building, the landform, is a site of instability and transformation, in one sense of those words, in a grand historical sense — in that these things are subject to change over a long period of time. The metaphorical interior of your abstract, decayed footage, which is the interior of the frame and the interior of the film stock, peeling back layers, and yet also what we could call a representation of an inner eye, is unstable and transforming in a more immediate sense — it comes to represent a consciousness that moving through and against this exteriority. In this way, you’re holding one sense of time to bear against another, the time of the individual subjectivity, of your perception, your process-time, against the greater scales of historical time.
EK: It is incredibly important in my practice with decay techniques and especially with All That Is Solid that I was able to manipulate time. While I edited the film I became very familiar with all the intricate patterns and textures of reticulated or bleached out footage. I achieved this by editing these sections of the film frame-by-frame. I feel the deepest connection with these decayed images because they form the metaphoric interior of the film. Part of this connection is due to the fact that I transformed the footage with my own hands. I cooked filmstrips on my stovetop in a pot of boiling water and rubbed away the emulsion with my fingers. I placed boiled filmstrips in my freezer and the softened images were imprinted with frost. I burned away layers of emulsion through agitation in corrosive bleach baths.
By slowing down the images I’m interested in allowing the viewer to bear witness to these transformations. This converted, decayed state is the heart of the film; its consciousness, emotions and internal workings. As the film plays we see the buildings transform into different states, they break apart and reform into a number of configurations. These movements of the emulsion are the energy that drives the images, through stages of life and death, investigating these inner cycles and feelings. My work as the artist was to make these states and sensations visible to the viewer.
Eva Kolcze Filmography:
By the Time We Got to Expo (with Philip Hoffman), 2015, HD, 9:06
All That Is Solid, 2014, 16mm to HD, 15:58
Badlands, 2013, Super 8, 4:12
Markings 1-3, 2012, 16mm to HD, 7:00
Modern Island, 2011, 16mm to HD, 5:00
775 King St. West, 2010, HD, 5:10
About the Author
Stephen Broomer is a filmmaker, film historian and preservationist based in Toronto, Ontario. He holds a PhD in Communication and Culture, and his films were recently 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.