Open City Documentary Festival

Focus: In Conversation – Christopher Harris & Karen Alexander

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We partnered with Birkbeck Institute of Moving Image for two events with artist and filmmaker Christopher Harris at the Essay Film Festival, for a screening of his 2001 film still/here, and for a lecture-performance: Speaking in Tongues. Below is a transcription of the conversation section of the Q&A between Christopher and curator Karen Alexander, that took place after the still/here screening at the ICA.

Karen Alexander: It’s almost been twenty years since still/here was made, yet the film seems to be getting more of an outing now than when it was shown. What prompted you then to make this film and maybe you could talk about some of the themes that were at work in the representation of the tourney that the film takes us on?

Christopher Harris: Briefly, I’ll speak to your prior comment. This film was originally screened for the first time in 2001, and it would screen occasionally here and there since, but, since last summer I think, its returned. There was a screening in New York and there were a lot of programmers and writers in the audience. Since that, its screened maybe two to three times the number of times in the past year than it has been seen publicly in all the two decades prior. Its really gratifying, you know, some works slowly build an audience and this has been one of those. This was my first film, it was an MFA thesis project when I was a graduate student in film production at the Art Institute of Chicago, and so it was made for that purpose. 

In terms of your question about my thinking, and the themes, and what I was trying to indicate in terms of considerations around representation. At the time – which is now twenty years back, so a lot of the concerns or issues that were foremost of my mind may or may not be so uppermost of mine now, but were very much present for me during that particular time period in the US, that context – I was really struggling against the way in which, to some degree still but particularly at that time, representations of black people on the screen were so thoroughly overdetermined on being so concentrated on embodiment and the corporeal presence of blackness to the exclusion of other representations. I am not one of these people who are reacting against that per say, but I wanted to work around that. I saw it as a problem, as an issue, and my impulse was to be as perverse as possible so that when I was confronted with a concern I would also begin by immediately pivoting 180 degrees away from it.

To me, one of the issues about the film was that I wanted presence to be felt other than in a hyper-focus on black bodies. So that was one of my concerns, I said to myself ‘maybe I can have that presence felt in so many other ways, but I don’t need to actually have bodies on screen’. Originally, I was planning to make a different work. I was thinking about films like Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero, and I was thinking about doing something scripted with characters and doing a kind of mash-up of influences from Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave where I was thinking of having these pastiche characters from other genres associated with black people like Blaxploitation engage with these spaces. I decided that that wasn’t going to work because I wanted to get away from the spectacularity associated with black bodies, and how that sucks all the air out of the room every time people’s critical faculties immediately run up with a spectacularity of black bodies. The discourse stops there, and we don’t engage with questions of form.

I was thinking about form, and how could I get at the experience, the experience of myself and of an African American presence in the United States. Certainly, I was also thinking about the idea of a disjunction of experience, and questions of absence and presence are very profound in the African American experience, being present in one’s body but then absent in many other ways: individually, culturally, socially, collectively. It’s something similar to what W.E.B. DuBois characterises as ‘double consciousness’, but not exactly that. I’m getting at other things, I want to get at the experience of being both absent and present in a place at all times, so that there is like a radical presence and a radical absence simultaneously, not one or the other.  

I don’t know if I did a good job of answering that. I usually have a much better answer than that, somewhat better anyway.

I’m curious for you to also talk about why it is important for you to actually use film, and to use film in the way that you have used it. Some of the things you were talking about, present-absences, absent-presences, but also for me, still/here is a great city film but almost a dystopian city, and also a city of absence of all of the sorts of bodies we get to see in mainstream media. The beautiful thing for me about the film is that materiality that your experimentation with film brings. Can you talk about why you used film in the way that you used it?

One thing I wanted to talk about, actually. I’m saying this for the first time so I don’t know exactly how I mean this, but I do feel this. I don’t see myself as a filmmaker, I see myself as an artist who works in film. The reason I put it that way is that for so long, when you go to film school and train as a filmmaker, the pedagogy around film production is very different and very separated from the pedagogy around visual art, and I really resent that. I don’t know how to draw and I cannot paint, but I do think I approach my work in the way that many visual artists who work in both ideas and material approach their work. So, film is important – that is, working with analogue and 16mm film – is still very important to me because of its materiality, and the expressive potential of its materiality, but also for reasons that are both practical and aesthetic at the same time. That has to do with the fact that when I’m shooting with film I can’t hit delete and reshoot. So it forces a kind of hyper-focus or hyper-consciousness where I’m in an elevated state of mind and I really have to commit before I do something, and I have to take a risk. It becomes more important for me. I struggle working with digital media for that very reason that subconsciously I always know there is an escape route. I like working with mediums that offer very little escape routes.

The body of the film strip is how I think through the medium, I think through the camera, I think about the resistance of the camera, and the limitations of the camera. and I try to use the camera’s resistance and limitations as a way to generate the work as opposed to a way to frustrate myself. I think precisely about what are the things that this mechanism can do, what are the properties of the film strip. Now, how can I take the properties of the film strip and then make it work from that. That’s why for me, it’s the the materiality of the medium and the limitations of the camera that make the work. I think through those formally and try to express an idea through the form and the material of the film. I don’t see form and content as companions, I see them as aspects of one experience.

So for this film, duration became really important for me because when you turn the camera on and let it run for 3 minutes without calling cut, whatever happens happens, and you have to be open to the risk of that happening. Some things you will like and will keep and move on, but what you saw was a fraction of what I shot. It took all of 2 years of graduate school to shoot and edit this film. Duration means something different with video than film, because the duration of these shots was an investment which held the potential for success or for disaster. When I set my camera up for something, it had to be right to me. I had to know that this was probably going to make it in the film. I made choices as opposed to just shooting everything, which would happen if I worked digitally. 

Another thing about the material, is in the sonic material and the way you use sound. I really appreciate the discordant coordinance between what we are hearing and what we see. You have shots that are quite static, but with very complicated sound going on. It would be good to hear about that, and also about the idea of time, and the representation of time, as it is seen in various ways: on the computer when you talk about the past, plus the visualisation of the clocks; and then in the shots themselves. 

In terms of sound-image relationships I was thinking about – I wouldn’t have put in these terms at the time as I only came across this much later – Nathaniel Mackey. I don’t know if you are familiar with Nathaniel Mackey’s writing, he was writing about John Coltrane playing a solo with Miles Davis in 1960 in Stockholm on a song called ‘All Blues’ and he was writing about how the solo had ‘split voice’. It was answering itself. A part of what he was playing was one voice and another part of the same solo was another voice, and the one solo was arguing with, or split within itself. I really like that metaphor, but the way I thought about it was that the first principle of my work that I try to achieve is that a work should be divided within itself. That’s a principle I try to teach my students. That’s one way to go, not the only way, mind, but my work needs to be that way. One possibility of constructing a work is to think about a fundamental contradiction that is expressive of something that you can structure your work around, and it was this split, and this contradiction, between sound and image that I was trying to work through that I thought was fundamental to the meaning and the understanding of the film, and the expressivity of the film and its experience.

There are different ways to do this. I try to make work that the consciousness of the viewer is split somehow. In other words: your eyes are one thing and then your ears are another, and they are divided, and what you experience is something like the experience of being African American in the United States. That split between what you see and what you hear mirrors the split between what you know and what you live, right? The reality of your experience and what you live, and what you know about what is considered about how you live, or what you are. Those are fundamentally radically different things, and I wanted the viewers to have this experience with disjunction and displacement, and to never be able to comfortably occupy a spectatorial position, so to speak. In my view, a film does not address a spectator, a film constructs a spectator. There is a way in which a film is constructed that presumes a kind of spectatorship and I wanted to construct something in a radically different way that reworked or remade the spectators experience and therefore the consciousness of the spectator. Thats why that was important to me to do that.

This sort of segues to your other question. Theres both a past and present. Its slippery and its undecidable whether the sound is the ghost of these spaces or a premonition, right? One reads ruins in terms of pastness in many ways so its tempting to read the sound as the ghost of these spaces, but ultimately thats not decidable when you have sound and image that are congruent or adjacent but are not attached to one another. Ruins are like a bit of the past and the present, and that is what the cinema is too. Cinema is a fragment of prior time and space in the present screening of the moment in the cinema when you watch it. So it collapses this binary between past and present, and I think that is the experience of watching any film. Many films are constructed so as to efface that experience and give you this sense that it is all happening right now, but I tried to make a film that you were constantly aware that right now is the past. Like, we’re inhabiting the past. This current moment is both the long ago past and the future that we’ve awaited. That’s the thing we call the present isn’t it, like always, already, all the time collapsing the distinctions. And so I try to see the ruins and the film as a porthole to foregrounding that reality in which most of our ways of navigating experience is to assume a discrete past and a future that we’re working towards as if they are not all present in every single moment.

So there’s sort of a sense that it is in some ways an exploration of the spaces, but it is also much more about a sense of place, in which you are going downwards, though all the layers of time.

There’s the archeological metaphor, right? Like digging through layers of sediment, so time is like one place with these layers of sediment that are always present together. The past is not some past. and the future is not some future right? it’s all now. We’re always constructing the past and we’re always constructing the future.