Evocative objects: reflecting history, nuance and emotion

“Living in an era defined more by complex systems than by material things, and increasingly mediated by the digital, how are we touched by the objects we can still touch?”

These words open the summary of the new Flaherty NYC series That Obscure Object of Desire, flahertynyccoverand made me excited. The ideas of coming to terms with our digital space is one I think a lot about. And I’m a big believer that daily life objects reflect our realities. One of the things I do in a new country is go into the supermarket and walk the aisles and get a sense of what is important to people.

So how great to have entire series devoted to the ideas behind objects – what they say about our histories, our personalities, our cultures. And even better that it was curated by two filmmakers (Pacho Velez and Sierra Petengill) that are thoughtful, artistic, and challenging in their own work.

The series runs every other Tuesday at the Anthology Film Archives in New York.

I had the chance to talk with them about the theme, the importance of objects and the shift to digital.

Q: What inspired this programmatic theme?

Sierra: Conversations had been happening around the idea. I saw the Simon Martin film [Louis Ghost Chair]. It compares furniture objects – chairs. The end of the film spirals off into more abstract, emotional ways that architecture and design and objects affect us. It becomes a kind of poetry. I mentioned this to an architecture friend, who works a lot in abstracted space and how architecture in the real world can play off of conceptual ideas of architecture and film. He noted there’s a lot of thinking now about the difference between digitally mediated space and physical space. [In this context] so many films came to mind – it’s a very fertile space. All artists right now are thinking about that. Digital touches everything we do. It felt like a ripe time for this type of programming.

 Q: “In this digital age, how are we touched by objects we can still touch?” I think a lot about our loss of tactile sensations in our increasingly digital world – a portion of the population won’t ever know what it feels like to spin a record, read a book, thread a film real, paint on paper. Are these feelings that you both feel in your own creative work and approach?

Pacho: The film that we’re making together right now [The Reagan Years] is very much about the textures of both the film and video it was recorded on. There’s also something very tactile about fabrics and wallpaper and things in the Reagan film.

It’s also working with all these different textures: 16mm film, ¾” video, digital video that we’re editing on, Betacam. Obviously you don’t “feel” video tape, but there’s something about the texture of older formats – a visual texture – that’s being lost somewhat.

Sierra: And thinking about the archive…we met the guy that maintains this archive [of Reagan moving images]. His whole job is maintaining this archive – shelves and shelves of video tapes. He’s been doing it for 17 years. You see the transition from archiving and curatorship of books and library collections to digital imagery, and audio-visual archives. I don’t want to say it’s a loss, but it definitely is a shift to the different ways we render concrete the past.

Photo: Filmmaker Magazine

Photo: Filmmaker Magazine

Pacho: I’m thinking about the tactility of my last film (shot on 16mm) and editing on the Steenbeck. Things that are being lost to the world. I’m not trying to be “Oh the new world’s awful,” but you’re seeing a shift and you feel a kind of melancholy to that loss.

Sierra: It’s a shift in a different direction. It’s hard to talk or think about objects without butting it up against digital or virtual objects. It’s very easy to be nostalgic. I’m just as guilty of that. But…I made a film about the tea party where I followed 2 low-level tea party folks for a few years. Being in their space, which is very different from mine – there’s a lot to learn about people from the books on their shelves, about where they shop, etc… There’s a lot that objects signify about people. I don’t think that will go away. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about objects vs. the digital realm. Look at the way that we look at and treat the objects around us. I felt that most acutely when I was in the homes of two conservatives in Pennsylvania.

Q: What about the meaning being in the eye of the beholder? How the meaning of objects can change depending on who’s looking or what our cultural experience is? (specifically In and Out of Africa)

Pacho: Techno-nostalgia is my own pet project but this program is really about the aura/mystique an object has. The value added. You put a brand on an object, and you suddenly make it worth twice what it was. You transport an object over a border, and the object accrues so much more value (being inside Europe instead of outside Europe). The objects are the same, but the circumstances around the object, the mystique, the aura, these other qualities outside the object, change it.

Sierra: Jessica Barkely’s film [The Blazing World] tackles that in an oblique way. It’s something about the devaluation of objects that happens in that film. You’re still seeing the emotional connection – but also the act of stripping the objects of their meaning.

Q: Does the close focusing on objects lead us to look differently at everyday objects (seeing them as prosaic or absurd)? This seems to be an issue in Il Castello and Clear and No Screws.

Pacho: I think there’s a dematerialization tactic that a lot of the filmmakers are using – getting the audience to see the objects differently.

Sierra: Both films are focusing on objects that are regular objects but in situations where they have a very heightened importance. (ex. In prison, an industry built around providing these ordinary objects and things. In Il Castello – looking at a crab claw over and over again in an airport with national security.) It changes an ordinary object and gives it context. It becomes about the act of looking.


Dusty Stacks of Mom

Q: Films about objects usually tend to have a more experimental edge, since there is often no action narrative, but rather a narrative that is constructed by the filmmaker. Can you talk about that?

Sierra: I think they really range. I think our most abstract program was the first one. But you look at Dusty Stacks [of Mom]…it’s just another example of the context in which objects can live in a hyper-accessible amped up atmosphere.

Q: What about using objects to tell a history? The most standard is reconstructing things through archival (although if you reconstruct through digital files, is it still using objects?) but there are other ways as well. (Motherhood Archives, 66 Scenes of American, Real West)

Pacho: “Archival” gains an importance through longevity. Look at the Simon Martin film – we see a chair in the 18th century. It just looks like a chair. It’s in the middle of being refurbished. If I saw it, I would throw it out. But because of this historical lineage, it has a historic value. It’s a very loaded object.

Sierra: There’s something interesting happening in the next [Americana] program – the Jorgan Leth film is an older piece, but we’re viewing it in 2015 – the gap between the year of the making and the year of viewing is significant. We’re also showing Old West, which is just made and returning to a historical place, or to recreate a historic time. They’re both historical films, but from very different ends of the spectrum.

Q: Can you elaborate on the idea of Americana buttressing national ideas of mobility and entrepreneurship? How do we see that through the Americana films?

Pacho: One of the concrete objects through which we understand these ideas and perpetuate these ideas of America – the notion that we can travel all over it geographically, and also the idea of social mobility that’s implicit through that geographical travel. This “can do it” American value. These things are abstract. How do you codify these ideas? What are the objects that contribute to fetishizing these ideas? Cars; the open road and highways; the single family home; fast food – all of which make appearances through these films.

I just watched 66 Scenes of America again for a class I’m teaching. There’s a scene inside of it, a very famous scene, where Andy Warhol eats a hamburger. There’s the Burger King logo and the Heinz ketchup bottle, things that make me reminisce about my childhood. I’m sure at the moment it was shot, it didn’t feel like a very nostalgic gesture. When one reads about Pop art, it’s often posited as ‘new,’ ‘contemporary,’ ‘in the moment,’ clearing away past artistic ideologies (abstract expressionism, cubism, Social Realism, etc). But, of course, the mass advertising culture that Pop was mirroring has now been with us for so long, and is in many ways being displaced by the online digital world, so that certain icons of pop have started to make me feel nostalgic, or sentimental for ‘the way things used to be.’ Modern consumer gestures have aged in their own way. They’ve gained a kind of sentimentality, gained a historical nostalgic that I imagine Pop artists would be horrified at.

Sierra: Objects have their own agendas.

Pacho: History has its own agency.

Q: Do you have a favorite film or program for anyone new to the Flaherty programs?

Pacho: If folks are looking for a Flaherty gateway drug, they should come on March 17th for Rebels of The Neon God.

– Karen Cirillo