In conversation with American artist and writer Elaine Smollin, Experimenta Oct 2014 (full text)

58th BFI London Film Festival 2014

Artists’ Moving Image Programme of the BFI London Film Festival 2014

ES: There is an extreme visual tension between sensation and image in both From A to B and Urschrift that conveys an interest in the film medium itself.  How do you see the reference to a historical continuum that your work seems to propose?

JDB: I tend to see my work as an aside or an interruption. Whether the films sit comfortably under today’s rubric of ‘artists’ film and video’ (with the broad spectrum and historic conflation this entails) or whether they are – more specifically – a backward glance at an earlier age of experimental cinema is a moot point. To answer more generally, I’ve never been very comfortable with epistemic breaks. I don’t think one –ism simply follows another. I don’t think one technological development totally eclipses the concerns of another. There are crossovers and continuities. There are modes of artistic production that slip through the cracks. Today, there is institutional motivation for talking about the ‘death’ of one form or function of a medium that has little to do with the experience or inclination of those who make the stuff. I admit to being a happy mess of modernist and postmodernist sensibilities and, given my vagrant ideation, probably a bit else besides.

ES: The straightforward seriousness of the films seems to press an urgent purpose. What would you say is the hidden theme or implied objective of the depth of feeling in this work? 

JDB: A lot of what I do is reductive. I am not, however, simply concerned with the materiality of film. I want to tell a story. What happens to storytelling (and the psychological or emotional journey implied by such a venture) when we kick away the props? It is always a risk. But doing away with continuity, coherent narrative, grand musical scores or, sometimes, even visuals, allows for a certain dynamic. Each film, though carefully crafted, emulates and elicits something raw.

ES: What can that more primal element enact?

JDB: The full potential, in a viewer, of what it doesn’t take away.

ES: The ‘Point’ series, of which From A to B and Urschrift are part, is an evolutionary project. So far, in very short films (usually 1-2 minutes), you have condensed and orchestrated vast sequences of images. In the not too distant future, we can anticipate a new type of screening for your works. So far, they are known as dazzlingly brief, conceptual works. But you have opened the possibility of a broader spectrum, even with multi-screen “orchestration”. Why?

JDB There comes a point in every artist’s life when they try to make larger work. If you are prone to the condensation of poetry rather than the expansiveness of prose, scaling up, for anyone but Edmund Spenser, is a trial. On many levels, the idea of allowing individual pieces a certain degree of autonomy – whether by allowing someone else to compile one film from many different pieces or create a ‘new’ work through expanded cinema – seemed a more natural extension of my practice. Like Robert Walser, I’ve discovered a joyous freedom in concentrating on ‘microscripts’: the story you fit on the back of a ticket without regard to when it  will be deciphered.

ES: Part of the magic of collaborating on From A to B was our physical distance, London, New York. As the subjective voice, speaking your script, part of my role was to imagine your intent. Can you describe the evolution of your intent upon receiving the “voice”?

JDB: As you know, years ago, I lost nearly a decade of our correspondence on my hard drive. To create a more permanent testament to our dialogue and friendship, I asked you to send me recorded samples from our many emails – whether things that you or I had written – that, together with my own recordings, would eventually form the soundtrack to a new film. From A to B was never meant to be part of this. I just happened to be working on it when the first recordings arrived. And a few of those words found form. I apologize, Elaine. I steal like a child when filmmaking.

 ES: Reflexivity is so much a part of this collaboration. What one gives to the other is a priceless challenge on a unique kind of threshold. For my part, I tried to reach into an alternative self that could project an aesthetic distance yet be the voice known to our friendship. This remains for me an unspoken aspect of the work. “Acting” to your script as a distant collaborator, my role is transformative, anticipating how you will discern a tenor of voice to spill its content. What were you in search of?

JDB: I know you were not entirely happy with the thing I ‘spilled’ on this occasion. You thought the voice too somber and sent me a more upbeat version. But it would have made a different film. Usually, I collect voices in much the same way I collect footage, not thinking exactly how I’m going to use them later. Sometimes, where the texture and tone of a voice appeals to me, I’m not even listening to what’s being said. When I heard your initial recording, a conjunction of visual and auditory elements came together. But I can’t say, up till then, I could define what I might have been looking for.

ES: Listening is a form of artistry, a lived, participatory act. A means of lived auditory perception.

JDB: Certainly. It is one of the most creative things we ever do. Art must attempt to offer resistance to habitual and complacent listening. Barthes who, like you, defines listening as a psychological act, goes so far as to suggest the impossibility of imagining a free society where we preserve old modes of listening – listening at one remove or in anticipation – linked to psychoanalytic or religious models. Art can liberate meaning, as my films seek to do, and try to restore listening to something more immediate. In a film such as Girl in a Taxicab, we might miss the instant gratification of images. I can understand this. But the ‘white out’ that lasts for two thirds of the piece is the visual manifestation of a psychological shift that has and will continue the task of enlivening the ‘acoustic image’ within film. This is an ongoing story. We have only to think back to filmmakers such as Ruttman.

 ES: I’ve been intently aware of your interest in sound for some years now. Since we met in 2005 at an exhibition in New York of your sound work We (2001), I’ve been involved with the idea of an unseen interlocutor whose presence is found in the mind of the audience. Your film From A to B has paired your interest in sound and voice with an allusion to the eye; the blinking of the eye likened to the opening of the lens and the mind.  How did you find this resilient image? To what are we opening?

JDB: The title of this film is an oblique reference to Warhol’s The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) where Warhol famously spoke of his understanding of death. He didn’t believe in it, he said. His work, perhaps as a result, is a constant celebration of presence. This piece, using a methodology diametrically opposed to Warhol’s own, revisits stray elements (a seagull, reflections of the filmmaker in the window, a blinking light and so on) that pass incidentally through that moment of monumental presence we experience in ‘Empire’. In this context, fifty years on, the last words spoken in my film are far from benign. Which might be a round about way of answering your question.

ES: As in so much of your work, the experience of the author plays to the history of cinema. The shadow of filmic heroes seems present here in your work. Who are your cast of heroes/heroines of the medium?

JDB: All those who know exactly where to draw the line.