December 13, 2017

Attend: OFF THE WALL, NIGHT ONE at Arts + Literature Laboratory, Sat Aug 5, 8:30pm

Attend: Program Notes
OFF THE WALL Video Art Series, 2017 Edition, Night One
Arts + Literature Laboratory, 2021 Winnebago Street, 8:30pm»

James Kreul takes a peek at the first installment of this year’s OFF THE WALL video art series, which returns to the Arts + Literature Laboratory on Saturday, August 5.

This is not a neutral review. I’m telling you without hesitation to support the fine work from Simone Doing and Max Puchalsky (Simone and Max) to bring their OFF THE WALL video art series back to the Arts + Literature Laboratory over the next four Saturdays. They’ve been kind enough to include the Madison Film Forum as a partner this year, and we’ll provide direct and indirect support, so I’ll label our ongoing coverage the next few weeks as program notes rather than reviews.

You’ll recall my enthusiasm for the inaugural OFF THE WALL series last year, not only because Madison desperately needs an off-campus venue for experimental cinema and video art, but also because the OFF THE WALL programming was immediately ambitious in its breadth. The sample I have seen so far suggests that this year’s series will also survey strong work rooted in abstraction, performance art, and alternative narrative forms.

Night One features several entrancing abstract shorts, including News from the Sun by The Smyth Brothers. In addition their work as filmmakers, the Smyth Brothers have established themselves as important experimental film exhibitors with their work at the UNEXPOSED Microcinema in Durham, North Carolina and the Haverhill Experimental Film Festival in Massachusetts. News from the Sun features hand-processed film footage shot by camera pointed directly at the sun, alternating with word-by-word shots of sensationalistic tabloid headlines. As you rhythmically piece together the headlines word by word you slowly discover that they are so shrill that it is more pleasing to stare directly into the sun. The sun shots toggle between pure abstraction and representation, as rooftops and telephone poles sneak their way into the corners of the frame. By the end you discover that the title reveals the conceptual connection between the two threads; I should have caught the joke much earlier, but I hadn’t thought about European media.

The sun also plays an important role in Katya Yakubov’s The Landing, which begins with the sun slowly tracking across the sky, juxtaposed with the moon playfully dancing within the frame. This first develops into a pattern of repetition and variation with circles of light, with those circles becoming more complex and vivid. The Landing really takes off, however, when that theme is abandoned for a wider palette, including dazzling patches of light moving through the frame and deep saturated colors that pop and sing. The imagery cuts together so fast that you barely have time to appreciate the objects themselves, leaving the shapes and colors to forge the aesthetic impact.

Equally mesmerizing is Ryan Lewis’ Everted Sancutaries IV, a stop-motion animation featuring a split-screen of two loops. Both loops feature a simple spherical object being radically transformed and then restored to its original state. But the loops are offset, so at times one screen the object will simply remain in stasis. Because our attention is split, it takes a while to realize that the imagery is looping rather than progressing to something new. Each loop overwhelms you with imagination and playfulness, recalling the work of Czech animator Jan Švankmajer.

Last year I described the strain of OFF THE WALL programming (and video art generally) strongly influenced by performance art, which included Steve Roggenbuck’s I Am Not Responsible for Anything the Moon Does this Month. Broadly speaking, in this strain the performance is more important than the visual aesthetics or storytelling. On Night Two, OFF THE WALL will include a short piece my one of my favorites in this strand, Ryan Trecartin (here’s a link to his past work). On Night One this Saturday, however, we’ll see the latest from Steve Roggenbuck, DON’T QUIT. Cynics might say that the new piece is simply more of the same, but Roggenbuck’s sheer energy is irresistable and it’s hard not to admire him when he’s on screen. The new piece also does incorporate some new techniques and some broader political ambitions.

This year’s OFF THE WALL will also feature some narrative shorts, including Emily McNeill’s In The Skip Distance. McNeill describes the film as semi-autobiographical, but it’s to her credit that I really didn’t know when this story was happening. It could be the recent past, it could be now, or it could be a post-apocalypse in the near future. What we do know is that a girl who seems to be on her own in the woods wanders through abandoned spaces and comes across items to add to her collection of cultural detritus. Like David Gordon Green, McNeill knows her way through abandoned spaces and understands the youthful aesthetic of meaningful solitude. The film plays more like a first act than a complete story arc, but it creates an dense and vivid world in a mere 9 minutes.

I’ve only touched on 5 films and videos of the 10 to be featured on Night One this Saturday. By the end of Night Four, Simone and Max will have showcased a total of 41 shorts that tend not to make it to Madison anymore (even the Wisconsin Film Festival has significantly pared down its experimental programming). I know where I’m going to be the next few Saturdays, and I hope to see you there, too. Keep checking back here for updates on the rest of this year’s OFF THE WALL series.