Lorenzo Micheli Gigotti

Interview with Pip Chodorov

from NERO n.12 december/january 2007 A couple of things before the 16,000 characters of this interview. Pip Chodorov was born in New York in 1965 but now lives in Paris. He has been a filmmaker and music composer since 1972. Chodorov studied Cognitive Science at the University of Rochester, New York and Film Semiotics at the University of Paris, France. He has been engaged in film distribution for several years – previously at Orion Classics, New York; UGC, Paris; and Light Cone, Paris. He is currently involved in Re:Voir Video, Paris, which he founded in 1994, and The Film Gallery, the first art gallery devoted exclusively to experimental film. He is also co-founder of L’Abominable, a cooperative do-it-yourself film lab in Paris, and moderator of the Internet-based forum on experimental film, Frameworks (mail to: listserv@listserv.aol.com, “subscribe frameworks”). The leading international artists of the European experimental film scene have grown up with and remained close to him (Metamkine and Karel Doing, above all). These artists continue the avant-garde tradition of experimental film, working with difficulty in squats and self-produced laboratories.

Lorenzo: I read your interview with Kenneth Anger published in The Brooklyn Rail, and I would like to repeat your first question to him: “How did you start making films?”
Pip: At the age of 4 or so I was fascinated by my dad’s 16mm projector and learned how to thread it. At 6 or 7 he brought me some black leader and I made a few scratch films. This was still a fascination with the projector, seeing how the scratched lines animated themselves. At the same time I started shooting in 8mm, running around shooting single frames, or animating objects, or making Georges Méliès type tricks. I never took it very seriously. I continued making films like that all through primary school, high school and university. When I went to Paris at the age of 23, people took my films more seriously, and so I had to make them more seriously. There are some other interesting elements. I had asthma growing up and didn’t like running around outside; the camera allowed me to speed up reality and my interest in filmmaking became a way to pass time and build a community of friends.

Lorenzo: How did your meeting with Metamkine influence your work?
Pip: In 1990 I started working at Light Cone in Paris, an experimental film distribution cooperative. They took a film of mine in distribution; I became a member and started volunteering. I didn’t realize how many little towns in France hosted regular film screenings. Grenoble was exceptionally active. I came to know the members of Metamkine first when they rented films, then when they performed. From them I learned that film could be developed easily at home, and that many interesting effects could be obtained using non-standard processing. With a little ingenuity one could invent all sorts of new imagery. I went down to Grenoble and learned the processes and was very inspired by the possibilities. I had felt restricted by the camera and filming the world around me, and by hand-developing and various sorts of manipulations, the film material became personal again, no matter what I filmed.

Lorenzo: What do you mean by “new imagery”?
Pip: For example, if you film through a red filter, the shadows stay black and the light parts of the image turn red. In Grenoble I wondered, how can I keep the white parts white but turn the dark parts red? By filming the negative through a green filter... simple but ingenious. I found people experimenting in all sorts of directions, doing wild things with reticulation, cross-processing, developing in coffee... I started tie-dying my film, or projecting negatives and re-filming in reversal using filters, looking for moments on the edge between abstraction and figuration. The image became the result of a process, rather than a copy of what was in front of the camera. Any given image could be treated in any number of ways, opening up whole dimensions of possibilities, each with new layers of significance for the poetic filmmaker.

Lorenzo: Tom Cora of the Klangspuren Festival claims that the work of Metamkine offers us the rare experience of a live cinema projected like music, the projectionists enjoy the spontaneity of an instrumentalist. Do you think that improvisation has become customary in experimental cinema? Does it act like a music group in the presence of the public? Are you also a composer? What is the relationship between music and cinema? I’m thinking about your film Piltzer and the performances of Metamkine...
Pip: My initial inspiration from Metamkine was the images. The performance aspect was new to me, and I didn’t know much about experimental music. For example, projecting with two projectors, a positive and a negative, and using filters, or one’s hand in front of the lens to alter the density, this to me was magic. In my film Piltzer I was definitely working with ideas I had picked up from Metamkine in Grenoble. But those ideas come from my university studies in cognitive science, as well as ideas from structural films of the 1960s and 1970s. And of course there is a long history of color organs, synaesthesia and relating colored light to sound. I had long discussions with the members of Metamkine about improvisation, but they were more interested in the dramatic curve of their performances than in the strict relation of picture and sound. Improvisation has played a role in experimental cinema because of expanded works or performance pieces. The act of projecting in interaction with music or with other projectors is definitely linked to musical improvisation. Jonas Mekas has described his way of filming as using the camera like a jazzman plays an instrument. The idea of improvisation goes back a long way. It is not new. But it is not necessarily in function of the audience, as it can be with music. The relation between music and cinema goes back, as I said, to Remington and color organs, and even further back to Leonardo da Vinci. My interest is more in the eyes and the ears and how the brain processes perceptual signals.

Lorenzo: Can you talk about the labs that were established in Europe at the beginning of the ‘90s (102, L’Abominable, MTK, Studio Een, etc.)?
Pip: In the late 1980s, Karel Doing bought some Super 8mm printing equipment in Arnhem, the Netherlands, and decided to make a trip to London, to the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative where they had a printer and developer, to learn how to set up a lab. He founded Studio Een and for several years thereafter, Karel made Super 8mm prints and offered workshops. The Metamkine group attended one of these and learned how Jürgen Reble (of the group Schmelzdahin) and other filmmakers developed their own film and manipulated images. Chris Auger had already worked at a photo lab, and Metamkine had already been developing their own slides and making sandwiches of slides. They started a small lab to develop Super 8mm black and white, developing in a bucket in a dark room. By 1992 they had acquired more complex equipment, and when I visited them in 1993 they had an optical printer, a contact printer, a well-equipped darkroom and editing tables. People started coming from Paris, Geneva, Brussels, and from all over France. By 1995 they could no longer manage the lab and make their own films, so they offered to help filmmakers set up their own labs in each city. I was one of the co-founders of L’Abominable in Paris with Nicolas Rey, Anne-Marie Cornu, Yves Pelissier and a half dozen other filmmakers. At the same time, labs started elsewhere. L’Abominable is today one of the best equipped and most active. We are happy to see that this experience passed hands from London to Holland to Grenoble to Paris and back to London over the course of twenty years. With improvements along the way!

Lorenzo: What do you think determined this interest in using film during the boom of the digital revolution? Is there something that connects them?
Pip: There has always been an interest in using film. In France it goes like this: just after the First World War, the filmmaking scene was incredibly active and the avant-garde was born here. In the 1930s activity died down and in the 1940s during the Second World War, all the artists went to America where filmmaking flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, under the influence of displaced European filmmakers. Meanwhile, in France in the 1950s, only the Lettrists were inventing avant-garde work, and during the Nouvelle Vague, some militant independent features were made. Experimental filmmaking was not revived on a large scale until the late 1960s, but during the 1970s it was huge. There were many production cooperatives and groups of filmmakers, and the number of festivals and screenings multiplied until 1976-1978, and there was an interest in starting a lab. But in those days lab equipment was state-of-the-art and very expensive. Requests for funding and political disagreements about how to receive funding divided the federation of filmmakers and cooperatives, and the 1980s was a very quiet period. The torch was kept alight mainly by Light Cone. The late 1990s picked up again, young groups started making and showing films, and by 1997 there were new production coops in Paris: L’Abominable and ETNA (Braquage). Today, new labs have sprung up all over France because the equipment is easier to find and quite cheap, but we are starting to see a new problem. Labs are closing, Kodak is discontinuing film stocks, cameras and projectors are not made anymore. The decision to work with film is now a conscious decision NOT to work with digital. But more interestingly, the film artists are taking over processes that before were industrial processes.

Lorenzo: How and when did the idea of founding Re:Voir come about?
Pip: In the early 1990s, many programmers were coming to Light Cone to screen films in view of rentals. We started asking filmmakers for videotapes, to save wear and tear on the prints. Some said no and some said yes. But one filmmaker did not understand our request, and said yes, it would be great if we could distribute the films on video. Maya Deren films had been available on video in the US since the mid-1980s. I realized this trend would soon hit France and Europe, and decided that not only would it be good business, but also important to promote the films and film art. I also felt it was important that we the filmmakers run our distribution, rather than entrepreneurs or big corporations. I did not foresee that someday, electronic distribution would threaten to overtake film projection. Anyway, that was in 1994. We released the films of Maya Deren, Hans Richter and Patrick Bokanowski. We continued releasing three titles per year, until 2000 when we released 8 titles including boxed sets with books. We became more and more ambitious. DVD became a big problem because there is too much compression for experimental films. We are trying to continue publishing without making concessions, on VHS and Blu-Ray, which are both difficult to sell at this time. We are forced to make DVDs but we are trying to release work that is the least radical visually. People are being brainwashed by big corporations about the digital revolution, about the art world, and filmmakers are even pushing me in directions I think are dangerous for the future.

Lorenzo: I understand that you opened an art gallery in Paris for experimental film. What was the impetus behind this decision? Where and how do you obtain financing for all these activities?
Pip: In the beginning, one of my goals was to get Maya Deren into the Fnac, a department store in France that sells video. The reason of going to the Fnac was to bring experimental films into the mainstream market. That is one side of the spectrum. The other side is the art world. Experimental film has always been in a no-mans-land between the film industry and the art world. There is an important art fair in Paris called the FIAC (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain). Two years ago I was surprised to see video screens all over the FIAC but no films. Suddenly I felt the importance of the artists I was promoting and their complete absence from the art world. I started the gallery with the help of friends and colleagues with the main goal of having a booth at the art fair and showing films. At first there was no strategy of selling films in the art world. This is a big debate. Experimental filmmakers and contemporary artists using film belong to two worlds that rarely meet. We founded The Film Gallery in 2005, the first and only art gallery devoted exclusively to experimental films. We are not funded. We try and survive for now, between Re:Voir editions, the gallery and the little bookstore. We also found a niche market, providing 16mm projectors and services for museums showing films on loopers.

Lorenzo: What strategies do you adopt to sell films in the gallery?
Pip: It is hard to sell films. Few have succeeded. Collectors want to know how to live with the art they have bought. They don’t want to set up a projector in the living room, they don’t want to risk scratching their unique print.
Museums with film collections typically pay 3-5 times the cost of the print, a very small fraction of what they spend on paintings. The prints do not go up in value - on the contrary, they turn red over time, or are scratched if projected often. Recently, museums have started buying films from art galleries, made by contemporary artists working in film and within the art world economy. A museum may spend from under 10,000 to over 100,000 for a film. They will probably acquire a negative, one in a limited series, with the right to print a certain number of projection prints. Because striking prints is tricky business, artists may only authorize certain labs, or supervise making the prints. The museum will exhibit the film on loopers, running it continuously for several weeks or months. This requires several prints to be prepared, as well as maintaining the loop installation. It is expensive for a museum to show the work. In the gallery, I have chosen to show mostly historical experimental films from the past century. These were never offered as a limited series when they were made, and it is artificial and impractical to offer a limited series now. So we have been trying to sell signed prints of films we think are historically or aesthetically important. We’ve been toying with the idea of commissioning new work from historical makers, but many film artists are reticent to limit the number of copies, for fear the work will not be seen. All these problems are indicative of the uncomfortable position of film in the art world. We are trying to pioneer an attitude within the art world to take filmmakers as seriously as artists, but we have not yet solved the problem of how to sell the work.

Lorenzo: We spoke about contemporary art and experimental cinema and I would like to ask you: don’t you think that today it’s quite complex to distinguish the context of contemporary art and experimental cinema?
Pip: These are two worlds that do not know how to meet. Almost none of the contemporary artists working in film and video are familiar with the history of experimental film. There are exceptions. Almost none of the great experimental filmmakers had or have a career in the art world with their films. There is no good reason why Stan Brakhage and Bill Viola, one working in film and the other in video, both top artists in their field, do not have the same authority, renown and income. One is in the art world and the other chose to or was forced to remain outside it. I find a lot of the contemporary work using film rather uninteresting compared to the work of contemporary experimental filmmakers. It is a different animal altogether. Matthew Barney seems to be working with the codes of the film industry, production and reception, that is his key. However, he is shocking people by spending so much money on such absurd imagery. But this too is a Hollywood tradition, to spend millions to create a fantasy. To me, Barney is not working with the clay of pellicula, but with the clay of Hollywood traditions, the mass media, the big budgets, the popcorn chewing audience and their expectations. Jonathan Monk makes 16mm work but it is all conceptual self-references to the art world. Whereas, as you mentioned, the experimental films refer to each other and to the history of cinema. The galleries are altogether ignorant of film techniques, history, traditions and logistics. Hollywood borrows freely from the avant-garde, the freeloaders. But the experimentation we filmmakers do does not penetrate the art world. Yet. For better or for worse.

Lorenzo: I think that experimental cinema has maintained over the years a singular connection with its history and with the history of the moving image. Perhaps we can say that it has become almost like a written and critical record of films themselves. I’m thinking about “Historire(s) du cinéma” by Godard, or your film “Number 4”, which makes me think of films by Michael Snow.
Pip: Absolutely. It is a reflexive practice, always commenting on itself. Films about film. The use of found footage, for example, is a direct use of quotation from previous film imagery. Bill Morrison says: I love to shoot, but there is so much great footage out there to use and rework, a century of good images, why not work with it? In my own work, I have often felt that the filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s were having a dialogue with each other about film techniques and meaning and that this came to an end somewhere. But these issues are still interesting and can still be developed. I make my films with the same equipment and capabilities as were common back then, and I am inspired by ideas that they were involved with. There have been film performances (improvisation) from the early ’20s (Dada), through Lettrism in the 1950s, Fluxus in the 1960s, right through to Metamkine now.

Lorenzo: In 1965 Jonas Mekas, reflecting upon Film-Makers’ Cinematheque’s screenings, claimed that some films (by Angus McLise, Nam June Paik, Jerry Joffen) were pushing the boundaries of cinema into a mysterious border land. There is the light, screen and, most of the time, also the moving image. But this could not describe what Griffith or Godard did. The cinematographic medium - he wrote - is exploding and is imposing itself to go on blindly in a direction that nobody knows. Forty years later, what direction do you think the cinematographic medium has taken?
Pip: Formally, at that time we reached a period of investigation into the boundaries that went as far as it could, using the mechanics and equipment of cinema. In France, the Lettrists were to take cinema into even further boundaries: imaginary cinema, infinitesimal cinema, super-temporal or even anti-super-temporal or even anti-anti-sup films. These questioned the very act of watching a film, of making a film, of imagining a film, or of any combination of the above, as well as the negation of each, and calling into question the very act of creation itself by the viewers. After these two boundaries were pushed, the question remained of what films to make. Throughout the last 20 years, there has been a return to older techniques with newer issues at stake. Found footage films questioning gender roles or politics, diary films reworked chemically, riding the frontier between the figurative and abstract. The poetry of film has become more about personal expression and proposing new never-before-seen images. There are always inventors – Peter Tscherkassky and his 35mm scope films made with found footage and laser pens; Nicolas Rey’s reticulation and, more recently, highly political essays mixing diary with Marxism and experimenting with techniques from the beginnings of cinema; Martin Arnold removing Hollywood characters from their backgrounds; Rose Lowder weaving three scenes together frame by frame in her Bolex to make a series of one-minute “Bouquets”; Frédérique Devaux’s series of films about Kabylie using collages and mosaics of different forms and formats of film stock; Cécile Fontaine stripping color layers off one piece of film using scotch tape and alcohol and placing them on other strips; Ken Jacobs’ 3D magic lantern shows - we are continually making new surprising images with film. But more and more there is a reason behind each film, an idea, a mixture of techniques with layers of interpretation. Through the 1990s Stan Brakhage became prolific in painting on film and each film was different and beautiful and expressed a pure idea, the windows of Chartres Cathedral, or the experience of slipping on black ice. I think each maker is expressing his or her personality through the work, and also his or her theoretical conception of the film medium. Each film is a manifesto. Each film is sweat, and heartbeats, and passion. I think we went beyond the beyond and came back home to daily reality, and now we are working very hard to make films that matter.