Laurie Anderson/Art & Spirituality

Posted: February 14th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Art, Chia Pet, Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Music, performance art, Religion, Spirituality | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Herman Melville & Laurie Anderson

Finding a seat in a crowded Miller Theater, Columbia University, the artist next to me is whispering about the difference between poetry and utility.  This could have been an equally good title for this evening, which instead went under the heading ‘Refiguring the Spiritual.’  Then Anderson takes the stage, with the look of an inquisitive child, in an over-sized wrinkled shirt and red socks and shoes.  She is alone; she will later be surrounded by three tall people,  the art historian and critic Irving Sandler, the painter Gregory Amenoff—who is chair of the Visual Art department at Columbia University—and the philosopher Mark C. Taylor, who is chair of the Department of Religion.  These esteemed interlocutors will spend the evening, like the audience, leaning slightly forward, focusing on her intently.

She starts by stating that art is not about making the world a better place.  ‘If it was, for who?  For you?  For you?”  I disagree.  Art is for making the world a better place for me (this is less megalomaniacal than it sounds).  I think of a quote which I, for decades, misascribed to Nietzsche but which is instead by Goethe:

“If the possible has become impossible I must allow myself to believe that the impossible must become possible.”

Art allows us to think the impossible. Art inelegantly, violently or tepidly, consciously or by haphazard, trips over the space between.

Anderson moves on to Herman Melville.  I would have thought her affinities closer to the story-generating talents of Laurence Sterne, but then remember that a comedienne needs a straight man.  She references what she sees as the central question in Moby Dick:

“What is a man if he outlives the lifetime of his God?”

He is a man who has picked a strange god, I think, or not watered him or her sufficiently (insert image of a dying Chia pet).  My atheist upbringing shows.

Chia Pet Shrek

She talks of important things.  Overconsumption.  The deadening influence of the art market.  She came of age, oh not so very long ago, when the art world viewed money with suspicion, and financial success was equated with selling out.  She talks of small electronic devices that steal people’s concentration.  But this kind of direct talk is not what she excels at.  She excels at telling small stories about the familiar with a twist—a what if.

A notable story about Jesus.  How we are lucky, from an art-historical point of view, that Jesus was in the New Testament, which punished blasphemy through crucifixion, and not in the Old, which decreed death by stoning. She conjures, arms akimbo, the central image of the Passion—Jesus on an upright, centralized cross replaced by a prone figure surrounded by a chaotic array of stones—forever changing the history of art and architecture.

She tells of a formative year in her life where she decided not to get out of bed until she had an idea.  I want this year. She addresses the students in the audience (we’re all students) telling us:

“Do not wait for someone to ask you to do something,”

This echoes more direct advice that experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer recently gave to my video students:

“Ask for what you want.”

Editing comedy, I learned that it’s all about timing.  Making an edit a little too early or a little too late makes something funny.  On the beat, it’s not.  Anderson’s work is also about this timing— leaving an off-shaped space for the contingent, the invisible, the poignant—and there is something very poignant about her elf-like presence.

“We’re here to have a really, really, really good time.  (Off beat).  A good time.”

The audience inhales, Anderson looks up at us, then down at her hands, and we laugh.

What is the difference between poetry (little explosions in the brain) and utility (home improvement)?

*Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed are putting together a not-to-be-missed month of programming at the incredible music venue The Stone


Posted: February 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Screenings, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Interview with Radio Eins on short films.  Before my turn with the charismatic host, Maike Mia Höhne, the tireless director of the Shorts Competition, was asked about the status of the short film form:  ‘Should short films be considered ‘real.’” She diplomatically talked about the huge amount of submissions she received and the quality and interest of her program.  (At a film festival like this, where narrative features have the privileged spot, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the amount of films in the shorts competition that aren’t ‘calling card’ films – made with no other raison d’être than to gain the director the budget to make a feature.  I think of this as the disease of (spread by?) most film schools.)

I took the chance, at the end of my interview (I’m learning the benefits of holding on to a microphone when one is handed to me) to risk the prediction that the traditional feature film form (unless one is working in James Cameron steroid 3-d) is on the wane and that the short film is in its ascendancy, what with YouTube, Vimeo and David Lynch ranting about the dangers of watching a feature film on a cell phone (with an official or non-official iPhone tag and ending with a nice use of the word Fucking)
Then the interview was over and the booth was filled with familiar but unrecognizable pop music.

I’m not saying that these short films will necessarily all be good films, but this idea/formula that an optimal film is 86 minutes seen in a dark cinema where the popcorn costs $6.00 and the plot is developed in the first 10 minutes (etc) may no longer hold.  I’m pretty sure that Hollywood is running scared.

An observation – a wide range of budgets and shooting formats evident, and much of the festival is being projected digitally – a far cry from the not so distant past when ‘film’ festivals wouldn’t consider screening a video, or a film for that matter, unless it was on 35mm.

Some things are changing quickly and some things are not changing quickly…

An image of the main table of the temporary stall set up in the lobby of the Arsenal Theater by B-Books, a wonderful Berlin bookstore (and publisher).  All interesting filmmakers.  All men.