Interview: Kaytie Johnson on The Long Now

Kaytie Johnson, Director and Chief Curator of The Galleries at Moore, talks about her show The Long Now with Gallery Assistant Alison McMenamin

AM: What was the initial idea for The Long Now, and how did it evolve from there?

KJ:   During the past few years I’ve become increasingly interested in durational, or time-based, media – that is, film and video – and the ways that contemporary artists and filmmakers have taken these movement-based mediums into dialogue with the fixity of the photographic still.   Another major impetus behind the show was my own growing sense of “speed fatigue” – no doubt a reaction to the fast-forward mode that increasingly defines contemporary life.  This chronic speedaholism has even infiltrated film, particularly mass-market or mainstream cinema.   In response, I was drawn to films that fit under the umbrella of what has been termed “contemplative” or “durational” cinema” – films that reject spectacle, have an intensified sense of temporality, favor the long take, are often minimalist and observational, and have little or no narrative.  The kind of films that continue what Andy Warhol and structural filmmakers, like Michael Snow, were making in the 1960s or, if you go back even further, what Auguste and Louis Lumière initiated in 1895, when their film Workers Leaving A Factory was publicly screened for the first time.  Their film was, essentially, a moving photograph of a fixed building, which people flowed out of – a brilliant fusion of movement and stasis.  Or, what writer, curator and artist David Campany has eloquently described as “the depiction of ongoing moments.”

Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles
Director: Chantal Akerman
(France, 1975, 201 min.), courtesy Janus Films.

Chantal Akerman’s brilliant film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles really embodies what The Long Now is about – duration, stillness, understatement, and extended temporality.  The very opposite of films that dominate current mainstream cinema – films like The Bourne Ultimatum, where the average shot length is 2 seconds.  I believe the success of these types of films, which are characterized by an abundance of abrupt images, special effects, and over-the-top spectacle intended to amplify the illusion of speed, really mirrors our “sound bite” culture.  They’re distracting and actually prevent or discourage any time for thought.  “Slow films” do just the opposite – they open up time for thought within the flow of film.

AM: The artists in this show are consciously referencing the photograph. Can you talk about how some of them are doing that?

KJ:  Sure.  To preface, I think it’s impossible to speak about film without referencing photography.  After all, the individual photography frame is the basic unit of the filmstrip – what are films, but a moving series of still images?  Jean-Luc Godard summed this up perfectly when he claimed that ‘photography is truth’ and  ‘the cinema is truth twenty-four times per second.’

Michael Snow (Canadian, b. 1929)
Wavelength, 1967
(16mm film, 45 min.), courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In the 1960s, Andy Warhol and Michael Snow drew attention to the photographic still that’s obscured by filmic continuity by exposing the mechanisms of cinema in their early films.  This is especially pronounced in two of the films included in the exhibition – Warhol’s Empire and Snow’s Wavelength.  They exposed cinema’s smoke and mirrors through their use of reductive cinematic and visual strategies – extremely long takes, minimal editing, formal strictness, a fixed camera position.  Later that same decade, Bruce Nauman also deployed some of these strategies when he made his “studio films” – to my mind, this series of works function much like minimalist cinema, with the camera in its fixed position functioning simply as a recording device, a dispassionate observer.  I remember reading a text that described these early films as “10-minute performances of epic banality.”  Banal?  Okay.  But consider this: Nauman made banality mesmerizing.

Bruce Nauman (American, b. 1941)
Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square, 1967-68
(16mm film on video, 10 min.), courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York.

AM: So, they’re using strategies that intentionally make you more aware of time?

KJ:  Exactly.  When Warhol was asked why he made Empire, he responded – in his typical, droll style – “to watch time go by.”  The strategies that Warhol and Snow used when they set this “aesthetic of slow” into motion have been in continuous play since then – the other video and film works in the show were selected specifically for their ability to convey and embody this.  All of them, in some way, are conceptually linked to the expanded field of photography – in fact, many of them can be considered to be filmic versions of a photograph, or “still films.”

Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987)
Empire, 1964
(16mm film, 8 hr., 5 min.), © 2012 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute.

AM:  Can you talk about the screening schedule?  The way the works in the show are presented seems very intentional and specific.

KJ: You’re right – the order in which the films and videos are screened was a very deliberate curatorial decision.   The organization of the screening schedule and the context in which each video and film work is presented were carefully thought out – it was important to me that they were both structured in a way that would reinforce the ideas and themes being explored in the show.   I felt it was critical that each piece was screened, by itself, for a discrete amount of time, rather than playing multiple pieces in a gallery space, simultaneously.  Presenting the works in that way would have allowed for distractions – for example, if an exhibition of video works is organized in such a way that each piece is played on a wall-mounted monitor, or is projected onto a wall, in the same gallery space, viewers are far less likely to spend ample time with each piece.  They tend to view videos displayed in this way the same way they do paintings…

AM:  In three seconds or less.

KJ:  You’re close (laughs).  Actually, it’s a little bit longer than that.  Surveys have found that most museum visitors spend an average of seventeen seconds looking at a painting.  The point of The Long Now is to encourage a more focused, sustained form of viewing, to make viewers more aware of the act of looking, to allow for a relaxed form of panoramic perception.  Durational spectatorship, if you will.

Meek’s Cutoff
Director: Kelly Reichardt
(USA, 2010, 104 min.), courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories, New York.

The screening schedule was also based upon the fact that some of the works in the show are best screened in a traditional theater setting, rather than in a gallery transformed into a “black box,” which is what we’ve done to the Goldie Paley Gallery.  In some cases, the filmmaker or artist specified the manner in which their work was to be presented – at other times it was a curatorial decision.  The three films that will be screened in Moore’s Stewart Auditorium – Sharon Lockhart’s LUNCH BREAK, Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, and Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff – are scheduled to take place in between the six screenings that will happen in the Paley Gallery – they function a bit like punctuation marks within the run of the exhibition.

The order in which the works are presented was also a deliberate decision on my part – it’s based upon their duration, in ascending order.  So, Mark Lewis’s film, North Circular, because it’s the shortest in length, will be screened first.  I envisioned the screening schedule almost as a form of endurance training.  By the time the exhibition draws to a close, some viewers might be ready to watch the final screening in the show, Andy Warhol’s Empire, in its entirety – all eight hours and five minutes of it.  That would be a monumental feat of endurance.  Maybe we should give a trophy to the person who can sit through the entire film…

Mark Lewis (Canadian, b. 1958)
North Circular, 2000
(35mm CinemaScope transferred to HD, 4 min.), courtesy and copyright the artist.

AM:  (Laughs) So, in order to see the entire show, you’d have to return nine times.

KJ:  Yes, the structure of the show prevents you from being able to consume it in a single visit.  That places demands upon the viewer but, if you think about it, so do all of the works in the show.  The “burden of spectatorship,” as a friend and fellow curator, has called it.  I can’t expect everyone to return again and again to see the entire show, but of course I hope many people do.

The Long Now opens on August 24 at The Galleries at Moore, 20th Street and the Parkway, Philadelphia, PA 19103. Film screening schedules and other information can be found on The Galleries at Moore website.

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