Voices from the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
“The Camera Reframed” was the first Flaherty Seminar with an explicit title and theme.
The idea evolved out of my fascination with what was then called “the information superhighway.”
As a child, I witnessed how the emergence of video drastically impacted my father, a documentary filmmaker. He had a business developing 16mm dailies for national broadcasting stations airing the evening news in the Philippines. Video killed my father’s film processing business.
So, reframing the camera, now positioned at the intersection of changing media technologies, seemed a most pressing question. What would happen to analog visual culture?
Through robust brainstorming and conversations with my co-curator Bruce Jenkins, “The Camera Reframed” emerged from my desire to launch into a historical examination of the camera, not merely as instrument of the historical gaze, but Camera As Subject.
We unpacked this idea by curating self-reflexive documentaries, looking for works that interrogated the camera as a vehicle for interpreting, conveying, shaping, even manipulating the histories and stories we tell.
August 1995 also coincided with two very significant historical events: the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the death of Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead.
To commemorate the anniversary of the bombings during the second World War, I selected Rea Tajiri's History and Memory , a video about the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent. Tajiri’s title and complex artistic process spoke to how media makers of color create alternative histories.
History and Memory declares a dialectic between what we are taught to remember as a function of control and what we are expected to forget—and therefore what we are forced to hide in safekeeping through memory.
History and Memory opens with representative images of what Tajiri thought was a childhood memory. The black-and-white Library of Congress archival footage of the Japanese-American internment camps shows lines of Japanese American families with their suitcases in hand, lining the sidewalks and staring at the camera with perplexed eyes. This footage represents the permitted institutional memory.
In contrast, Tajiri reenacted a scene representing what she thought was a memory: a woman (perhaps her) drinking from a water pump in an internment camp. In filming the re-enactment, Tajiri realized that this “memory” could not have happened. She was born years after the Japanese-American internment. This revealed personalized memory: that is, repressed or imagined images of fear, uncertainty, exclusion—images that evoke realities more personally palpable than the institutional footage.
In History and Memory, memory resides in the mind’s hidden camera. This camera bears the burden of censored history. It identifies what we were told not to see and recreates what we were told to forget.
In August 1995, the death of Jerry Garcia and the emergence of a new mass media represented a second historical congruence.
News of Garcia’s death coincided with the day and hour that we launched a Flaherty experiment in digital media.
Part of our curatorial intention was to observe the crux of moving-image technology at the time—the emergence of the Worldwide Web.
We invited Asian-American experimental media artist Shu Lea Cheang to talk about her cybernetic installation, Bowling Alley [1995-96]. I had previously curated it for the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
The presentation was scheduled for August 9, 1995. The audience would witness Cheang’s conversation live digitally onstage and on-screen with her project partners, Kevin Sawad Brooks and Beth Stryker, in another state (no longer sure where they were). Golfball cameras (the predecessor of today’s GoPro) via the internet (an early version of Skype) were used.
The exercise failed.
At the exact time of the presentation, the ethernet blazed with news announcing the death of Jerry Garcia. And at the moment when our new technology crashed, a new form of mass media emerged. Internet traffic jammed “the information superhighway.” The connections at Wells College could not accommodate the glut of rapid communication.
Ordinary people dethroned multinational broadcast media. Accidentally, they subverted the message of our Flaherty seminar’s theme. The masses decided that Jerry Garcia’s death was the most important message to pay attention to.
Importantly, the seminar did not fail to open up opportunities for dialogue and debate between Western and Third World critics and historians about different postcolonial ideas and LGBTQ concepts, as they related to older and new technologies.
Controversy erupted. Many participants vigorously argued that Nanook of the North  affirmed the Western gaze and positioned the cinematographer as “redeemer.” Flaherty’s camera created narrative tropes for a fantasy construction of First Nations and the Third World. Filmmaker Nick DeOcampo (Philippines) asserted that “Third World Camera,” in contrast, evidenced and exposed colonial scars.
How the West chooses to see the world and the Other drives the rules of storytelling. First Nations, Third World countries, and marginalized cultures within Western cultures become the Other. At the seminar, Cheang, DeOcampo, and Tajiri disrupted the imposition of the Western gaze. They took ownership of the camera. They told their stories with their own images and likenesses.
Our 1995 Flaherty Seminar brought these image-makers together into a zone that collapsed the distances and dichotomies between colonizer/colonized, as well as the camera as the gaze and the camera as the object of the gaze. The seminar unpacked the act and the art of looking.
In the decades since the 1995 Flaherty Seminar, I’ve become a multidisciplinary arts curator and artist.
My projects now move beyond the black-box theater and the screen and into public spaces. As Program Manager for Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, I co-curated The UnConvention [Summer 2008] with partners in the arts, media, and academia. Steve Dietz, founder of Northern Lights.mn, a Twin-Cities-based collaborative interactive media arts organization, conceived this citywide participatory art and media response to the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
“The UnConventional Gathering Space” transformed Intermedia Arts into a cross between an alternative-artist press center and an exhibition venue.
One gallery featured Fang Yu Frank Lin’s Political Science 101, which simulated an old-fashioned classroom, where a hacked slide projector presented graphs, tables, and pie-charts with frequently mentioned words from the presidential election. My curated travelling show, Instructions For Peace [2001-present], commissioned artists to construct interactive multimedia installations meant to engage the public toward acts of peace.
With Augmented Reality (AR), selfies, and DIY culture, my curatorial and artistic work explores moving image technology’s impact on how we view the world and shape stories through our own gaze. My current project, Living Rooms, uses AR to reveal the experiences of immigrants, refugees, adoptees, political asylees, “mail-order” brides, and dreamers impacted by DACA.
I am not done reframing the camera.
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