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Wavelengths: An Interview with TIFF’s Andréa Picard

Toronto is abuzz with film fever once again with the opening of the 36th annual Toronto International Film Festival this week. Amid the general mayhem of theatre queues, blockbuster premieres and celebrity sightings, a more pensive side of TIFF shines through in Wavelengths, the festival’s opening-weekend focus on experimental film. Organized by festival programmer Andréa Picard into a set of five thematic screenings, Wavelengths pushes the boundaries of filmmaking and the imagination, offering a cutting-edge view of the issues behind moving images. Earlier this week, managing editor Bryne McLaughlin had a chance to speak with Picard, who’s marking her sixth and final turn with Wavelengths, about highlights in this year’s program and the interwoven histories of film and art.

Bryne McLaughlin: Wavelengths is positioned as a bridge between film and art. There are certainly distinctions to be made between mass-market and experimental filmmaking, but at the same time there are plenty of instances of art finding its way into commercial films and vice versa. I’m interested to know what differences you see, if any, between a filmmaker and an artist.

Andréa Picard: I would argue that certain auteurs are definitely artists. Just because you’re making a narrative film doesn’t mean you’re not an artist; that film is still your expression. The difference is mainly because of the history. You have the history of experimental cinema or avant-garde cinema; and then you have the history of modern art with the Fluxus movement and Surrealist filmmakers. These histories have been intertwined since the beginning of film, but there has been a kind of cultural amnesia about this connection. In the past 10 or 15 years, we’ve started to talk about the interplay between film and art, which has always been there. There is also a different economy to consider. Experimental filmmakers often have to teach in order to make a living, whereas a visual artist can sometimes package their work in a DVD and sell it as an edition for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

These differences really affect each other, but I think they are always in dialogue. So you’ll have someone like Mark Lewis, whose film Black Mirror at the National Gallery is making its North American premiere at Wavelengths. He’s definitely a visual artist working in film and video, as opposed to someone like Rose Lowder, who’s been making experimental films for quite a long time and definitely considers herself an experimental filmmaker first and foremost. But her work has recently been shown at the Centre Pompidou. So here you have this interplay of her films now entering the museum space. Wavelengths tries to be open to both of those positions.

It’s also important to note that we’re screening three one-minute films, because an expression can be one minute or it can be 99 minutes, and I think it’s important to explore everything that’s being made. Ryan Martin is a filmmaker from the Philippines whose work is predominantly narrative. He’s shown his films at Cannes and he was commissioned to make a one-minute leader for the Rotterdam Film Festival that ended up being this really marvellous work, so we’re showing it as a film proper. He comes from a completely different tradition—a narrative tradition, not an experimental film background.

BM: If the films in Wavelengths can be considered artworks as well, is there a distinction to be made between seeing these films in a cinema environment and seeing them in a gallery or museum?

AP: That distinction is increasingly blurred. There are artists who want to experiment with both conditions, and those conditions are quite different. There is the ambulatory nature of gallery going, where the viewer will spend two minutes with the work, as opposed to 20 minutes or often longer in a cinema. For instance, we have a film called Coorow-Latham Road by Toronto-based artist Blake Williams, which recreates a rural road in Australia using Google Street View. It is a really marvellous recasting of the long take. We follow that entire road, which I think is 40-some kilometres from beginning to end. It’s very much in the tradition of structural filmmaking where time is a big element, so watching the full 20 minutes in the cinema is a completely different experience than watching 2 or 3 minutes in a gallery space. Also you want the proper conditions; you want it dark, and silent, so you don’t get noise bleed from another installation. All of those things matter and affect the experience.

I would never show work in a cinema if the artist only intended it to be seen in a gallery context. Artists can be really guarded around the conditions that surround their work. You have someone like Steve McQueen who is now making narrative films, but his gallery installation pieces are very precise and he gives very precise instructions as to how things are meant to be shown. I think curators really appreciate that, because it becomes a dialogue between the curators and the artists and then, ultimately, with the audience or patrons.

BM: This makes me think of Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, which I first saw in a cinema and then a couple of years later as a massive dual-projection installation at the National Gallery in Ottawa. The two experiences were completely different, but for me the installation was much more immersive and powerful. The work can exist on two levels, and it made me wonder what the artists’ intention was in the beginning.

AP: I also saw that installation at Jeu de Paume in Paris. It became a different iteration of that film. I’m not sure of the history, whether it was two separate projects in the beginning or if one grew into the other. But I think it’s an apt example, and it’s happening more and more. I mean, take someone like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who won a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year. We have a short film this year that he made for the Viennale, this film festival that commissions artist-filmmakers to make trailers and they end up being really fantastic works. Every opportunity Apichatpong has to make something, he turns it into something great, whether it’s a short or a feature. He’s just had a show at the New Museum in New York and in 2009 we programmed his installation Phantoms of Nabua with the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, which is very different from his film work but still very much has his signature style.

BM: Can you give me some Wavelengths highlights for this year?

AP: One film that will be of interest to your audience is a very special film that we’re getting from Tacita Dean and Marian Goodman Gallery. It’s Dean’s portrait of painter Cy Twombly, who passed away in July. Tacita’s work is a very good example of what we were talking about; she doesn’t normally show her work in a cinema context; she prefers to present them as sculptural pieces in a gallery. But she thought that it might appeal to our audience given that Cy just passed away and she wanted to make this special loan in his honour. It’s a very atypical portrait—one artist gazing upon another. The thing that is so remarkable about it is that if you did follow the work of Cy Twombly you know that he didn’t give very many interviews. He was a notoriously private man. It’s very integral that the film is called Edwin Parker, because that’s his given name. It’s just kind of a day in the life; he goes to a diner and orders a turkey sandwich. So here you are watching this titan artist doing these really kind of mundane things. It becomes startling and really beautiful. It’s a film that fits Wavelengths, but showing it is definitely a great honour.

Also in the same program is Joshua Bonnetta’s work American Colour, which is very much in dialogue with another Tacita Dean work, Kodak, where she made this beautiful portrait of celluloid at a Kodak factory. Now Josh has made a film about Kodachrome, which is no longer being processed. This is a condition that film artists now have to contend with, a lack of their tools and their medium. Filmmaking mediums have changed very quickly, and unfortunately the conversation sometimes dissolves between celluloid and digital. I think that they each have their own properties. Celluloid has these fundamental properties of colour that are so different than they are in digital. So Josh made this work where he went on a pilgrimage to follow the trajectory of Kodachrome from upstate New York, where the stock was invented, to Kansas, where it was last processed. But he wasn’t able to print the film, because it isn’t being processed any longer. He’s doing it in this digital age, so it becomes a hybrid work, and there are many hybrid works now. It’s a time of transition, and I think that’s how these artists are very current: they’re dealing with it and it becomes an immediate circumstance of today.

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