On Location: Inside Art Documentary Production

Art21 Extended Play

100th Exclusive & William Kentridge Exclusives, Carrie Mae Weems Uncut, the problem with talking, and screenings

As usual, there’s a lot of production-related ground to cover I’d like to cover.  First, I really need to publicly acknowledge what’s hopefully no longer a private landmark, the release of our 100th Exclusive video last Friday, William Kentridge: Pain & Sympathy.  Rather than bore you with some self-congratulatory shout outs to the folks who’ve been responsible for this two years (and counting) effort – Art21 associate curator Wes Miller and web manager Jonathan Munar; freelance editors Mark Sutton, Lizzie Donahue, Mary Ann Toman, Joaquin Perez, Paulo Padilha, and Jenny Chiurco; Art21 Executive Director Susan Sollins and Series Producer Eve Moros Ortega; Art21 production coordinators Larissa Nikola-Lisa and Ian Forster – I thought I’d take this as a chance to pull back the curtain on our online video production process.

The trio of Exclusive William Kentridge videos we’ve released so far – Breathe, Return, and Pain & Sympathy – are a great way to start. Each had the same starting point – a multiple day shoot at William Kentridge’s studio in Johannesburg, South Africa in the Fall of 2008 (initially intended for the Kentridge Season 5 broadcast segment) – but each had a different editorial genesis and trajectory. A  little breakdown of which will, hopefully, shed some new and interesting light on our online video production process.

The Breathe Exclusive may be in a way the most typical. It started quite literally as an outtake from the broadcast segment, a sequence that didn’t quite make the final cut; Wes Miller and myself, Art21’s online video producers, inherited it from the broadcast segment’s editor, Mark Sutton.  After seeing it for the first time, there was little question in my mind of whether it would make the Exclusive cut.  I loved the immersive quality of it, how quickly you’re dropped in on William’s creative process.  But I loved the quick pay-off even more.  It’s rare that an artist’s process can yield such a complete narrative cycle – a beginning (organizing of cut papers),  middle (paper fanning), and end (footage in camera monitor) – in such a short time frame.

The Return Exclusive started, embryonically, as a broadcast segment outtake – basically an uncut 45-second clip of the composer sequence from Kentridge’s original Return video.  Wes and I were intrigued when we first saw it.  Editorially, it gave us the opportunity to give an idea central to the broadcast segment – William’s fascination with the messily human process of visual perception – a new wrinkle.  But we knew we wanted to deliver something more fleshed out, something a bit more directed than just an extended clip.  Digging further into the broadcast footage, we discovered we had footage of William actively describing the work at a laptop in his studio (footage not exploited in the broadcast segment).  That footage became the skeleton for the segment, the support upon which we could extend and further clip from William’s original video. As we cut the piece, we realized that we were battling against the same perceptual conundrum that William’s describes in his video – our desperate need to resolve chaos into order.  As producers, our particular balancing act was to find a way to reveal enough of each individual sequence to suggest some kind of resolution, but not so much that we’ve given away the punchline.

The Pain & Sympathy Exclusive started not as an already cut outtake, or even a single clip, but as text.  Knowing that we wanted to produce additional Kentridge videos, but looking for something a bit more personal and emotional, we remembered some original interview transcript that was used in the Season 5 book (that wasn’t clipped in the broadcast segment):

That’s what every artist does – use other people’s pain as well as his own as raw material.  So there is – if not a vampirishness – certainly an appropriation of other people’s distress in the activity of being a writer or an artist.

We knew we could pair this with one of William’s animations and found the perfect vehicle in History of the Main Complaint; we thought the imagery of violence and sickness, the presence of the Kentridge stand-in character Soho Eckstein, and William’s own interview would all dovetail nicely.  So in the edit, the trick was to find the right blend of interview and animation. Since the animation had such a strong narrative to begin with, we decided to create a condensed version of the original animation, while very carefully layering in William’s interview.  That suited our programmatic-editorial needs for diverse video looks at the same artist.

Reviewing the trio of videos as a whole, if Breathe is an experience of process, and Return is exposition of an idea, then I think Pain and Sympathy is an immersion in art.  Our Kentridge videos are probably not quite over yet; you can expect more by the fall.

Now onto a little Art21 Uncut.  Art21 had the good fortune to host a talk with Season 5 artist Carrie Mae Weems and comedian, actor, writer (and Dancing with the Stars contestant), David Alan Grier in New York City in mid-March. Art21 production coordinator Ian Forster and myself had the even greater fortune of getting front row seats to shoot it.  So below is a very brief clip.  Nothing that’ll radically alter the discourse around Carrie’s impressive body of work, but something that gives the flavor of this unconventional artist talk. (Producer’s note:  I have to admit the below clip isn’t “Uncut” in the strictest vérité sense of the term, but we felt that to really do the moment justice, a couple of select cutaways were in necessary.)

Art21 Uncut: Carrie Mae Weems & David Alan Grier in conversation from Art21 on Vimeo.

I’d like to take this as an opportunity to talk about talks, or more accurately, talk about video about talks. The production team here has actually been shooting our various sponsored talks over the last couple of years, partly driven by the idea that it’s important to have an archival record, but also with the hope that we’d edit and release the footage as short format videos.

Now part of the problem has been finding a satisfying model.  As avid consumers of art-related online video, we’ve seen enough videos of artist talks (and non-artist talks for that matter) to know there’s few that are truly compelling outside of our intrinsic interest in the speakers and what they’re saying.  Typically, they’re little more than straight up documentation – artist or artists and moderator in conversation; in an overly dark, lecture/performance space with a live audience; oftentimes as seen from a single distant position, sometimes from multiple angles.  Even organizations that exclusively focus on delivering inspirational media-heavy talks, like the cult-like Ted, offer surprising conventional presentations.

My favorite talk videos now are parodies, those embracing and sending up the essential artificiality and awkwardness of the format.  The Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis series on Funny or Die is really the current benchmark.  Below is a particularly good episode with Ben Stiller; I really enjoy the quiet meta-ness of it all, the way Stiller leaves the set, goes backstage, and yet is still present.

You could certainly argue the potency of any talk video is almost wholly dependent on the talkers themselves, on the nature of their conversation. But I’d also argue that the treatment can be as important as the talking itself. I think the Ben Stiller Between Two Ferns episode is a testament to that — the lo-fi video and graphics, the utter staidness of the close up-close up-wide shot sequencing, the garage sale mise-en-scene, all those elements mesh perfectly with Galifiankis’s alternately demeaning and confused host and Ben Stiller’s increasingly angry guest.

So it’s about finding that right approach for us at Art21. And because I can’t and/or don’t want to go the Funny or Die route, I thought I could try a treatment that’s at the heart of our broadcast program – documentary.  I don’t simply mean documenting; I mean an attempt to capture the event in as live, personal, and immediate a way as possible. In real terms, that meant getting our cameras as close as possible to our Carrie and David, at eye level, as if they’re audience members; shooting not just the talk itself, but all the environmental details and rituals around it – the positioning of chairs, the slow filter in of audience, Carrie and David putting on the microphones; putting the cameras not on unnaturally stable tripods but on a monopod and shoulder-mounted stabilizer, camera mounts that will naturally move and react to the operators’ small, unintentional movements.

Now that the talk’s been shot with such grand aesthetic-narrative ambitions, the next step in the experiment is probably the hardest – editing it all into a short format video.  We hope to do that in the coming months.  Then the next, next step is the maybe most crucial — gauging whether user-viewers think we got a little bit closer to discovering this now-mythic creature, the compelling artist talk video.  I’m guardedly optimistic.

Before I sign off, I’d like to direct your attention to a few, very worthwhile New York City and Ether-based screenings.

  • Whitney Biennial videos. Not a screening per se, but something any conscientious web art video watcher should be aware of is the on-going series of videos the Whitney Museum of American Art is producing around the current 2010 Biennial. It’s a really interesting experiment away from the typical institutionally-driven documentary approach.  So instead of sweeping pans of the exhibit’s works and overarching statements from the curators, we get something far more informal, subjective, localized, artist-centered – check out the Ari Macropoulos video as a prime example. Interestingly, the Whitney’s been adding to the pool of videos throughout the run of the Biennial (May 30), rather than releasing them all in one big initial lump. They’re quite beautifully shot.  The producers seem to be using on of the increasingly popular generation of new HDSLRs (High Definition Single Lens Reflex), professional digital still cameras that shoot file-based digital video with traditional still camera optics, giving the image an extraordinarily shallow, movie-like depth of field. I covet these cameras for Art21 myself.
  • Creative Capital funded projects at MoMA. Now in its 11th year, Creative Capital has helped contemporary artists produce a pretty extraordinary range of “fictional narratives and documentaries, animated and experimental shorts, and live moving-image performances.” MoMA is presenting a lot of them through early June. Peep the schedule here.
  • Mondo Kuchar at Anthology Film Archives. Everyone’s favorite underground/outsider filmmaker brothers, George and Mike Kuchar, get the documentary and retrospective treatment at the Film Anthology Archives in New York City through mid-April.  The very intriguing-sounding IT CAME FROM KUCHAR is a new documentary “bursting with hysterical and touching footage of the Kuchars at work and play, overflowing with eye-popping excerpts from countless films, and abounding with commentary from Kuchar devotees, including John Waters, Buck Henry, Guy Maddin, and Anthology’s own Andrew Lampert. In short, IT CAME FROM KUCHAR is the Kuchar documentary we’ve all been dreaming of.”  I’m sold. Also playing are several nights of Kuchar shorts programming.
  • Free screening of Mingus at the 92nd Street Y Tribeca (New York City) on April 21. I haven’t heard of this documentary before but the Y’s description is difficult to resist (and I’m a complete sucker for 60’s black and white 16mm film). Print from the collection of the New York Public Library.

“Charles Mingus, awaiting eviction from a loft space that he intended to use as a school, shares his feelings on America, shows off his shotgun and shares wine with his young daughter. An intimate look at a great jazz artist, this documentary includes performance footage of Mingus and depicts the struggles that even a successful musician faced at the end of the 1960s.”

Ok, I need to stop now. For my next post, you can expect more Art21 Uncut, a roundup of documentary blogs and web resources, and a little treatise on the fascinatingly sneaky commercial co-option of the short documentary format on the web.