Work in Progress
Monuments: a series of short films and installations
Athens is a beautiful mess. Layers of history exposed at different opacities, people from all over the world seeking a connection to the most visible, the oldest. Photographing it, watching immersive presentations of it, eating it and purchasing it in the form of t-shirts, bags and little plaster Parthenon magnets. The Acropolis shines at night from all directions, as building codes keep it visible in the center of the old city. A monument to one of most recognizable focal points of many a quest for the ancient roots of western culture, politics. And for some, a kind of pure idea of the past and a past of purity. The Acropolis is there, plus old and new archeological projects woven throughout the streets of Athens. No new construction can take place without a team of archeologist focusing their attention on what may be revealed next of ancient Greece. What gets ignored or merely tolerated by many visitors, are the other layers of history and culture still on display, if we choose to look. Smaller monuments to many of Greece’s growing pains- civil war and occupation in the form of bullet holes in the walls to the daily life in the old flea market and amongst individual street sellers that still inhabit the same locations of the past 100 years at least, not yet crowed out by modern souvenir vendors.
Flea market. My mother told me that growing up around Psirri in the late 1940’s until mid 1950’s, she and her cousins laughed about how nothing was there but fleas. She says that is what Psirri means. But now it an exciting tourist destination, with bars ,music and restaurants open late into the night. I sit with my daughters at a very cool and foody Louisiana style BBQ place, 20 feet down from the boarded-up apartment where my grandfather, one of 8 children, lived at the beginning of the 20th century. The metal gate is the same, but the walls are covered with graffiti. Graffiti is everywhere, which I don’t mind, though many do. I see it as more people who want monuments of their own to be seen. Their history is also part of Athens. And it isn’t pure and clear, like ideas about the ancient times.
Pure and white. We see the old statues in white, ensconced in the museums. But now art historians, anthropologists, and chemists, are showing us the colors that these statues actually wore in their time. The colors were lost in the whiteness, the scrubbed marble we see now. The pure white story was easier to tell, to envision. When the colors were first revealed, they were divisive, upsetting to admirers of these remnants. Now there is growing interest and acceptance. It takes time to understand what we are looking at, how to see.
When my Athens born grandfather travelled through Europe in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, he saw what was happening and tried to square his love of travel and meeting new people with the threat of growing xenophobia, antisemitism, and nationalism. The people he came across asked this young Jewish man from this monumental old city in Greece; are there Jews in Athens? He replied no, and that seemed believable, because of established ideas of iconic places and figures. His Jewishness was hidden under a mantle of the idea ancient Greece. But his community at home was tightly knit into the living new fabric of the city. The neighborhoods of Psirri and Thisseo, their messy immigrant vitality hidden by the Acropolis, toward which all eyes turn.
I have a manuscript written by my grandfather. It is a sprawling book about history, textures of life in the poor Jewish neighborhoods, wars, intermarriage, immigration and new life in mid-western America. I have had this manuscript since he died in 1979 and I was a child. I have read it and thought of it as I grew and pursued other artistic projects. I had trouble seeing how to work with it, make sense of it. I am now 55 years old, my grandparents and their siblings long gone, my parents and their generation are at the closing time of their lives. The small Jewish community that my grandfather was part of in Athens is disappearing. I can recognize the monuments of his community because they are still standing throughout, some amazingly, as the state of them is so derelict and yet surrounded by vibrant new growth. How long will they be visible, an aid to the stories told in the manuscript. How long will the generation who remembers them (in their 80’s) be here to enrich our understanding of a time and community in the shadow of the icons of ancient Greece. It’s not just personal nostalgia. These places and people complicate and enrich the story of Athens. And they are disappearing, without the caring eyes of archeologists, new constructions are replacing them.
I can see these monument, places and people in the shadow of the Acropolis. But how do I show them in all their colors, not as pure forms? As an artist I am not a practitioner of purity. I am not loyal to 16mm, or any particular, iconic, technology. I have been interested in how many approaches can reveal something new about the ideas they interact with. With this project I want to use them all, to look at these many layers and colors still visible, to varying degrees of opacity, if we look. So many stories, so many ways of looking. This is a central challenge and part of my project. I don’t want to simplify them. I want to embrace the beautiful mess.
I come from a mix of people who have lived through a messy history. In researching their less visible stories I have found unexpected connections and degrees of opacity. Some barely there, some glaringly clear. This project is a big stretch for me on many levels. It is a challenge because there are so many stories and I have been collecting and generating a lot of sound, filmed images, and animations. I have had met amazing people and had experiences of serendipity, and I am still working. I want to share a bit of one example. There is a story in my grandfather’s manuscript about leaving Athens and coming to America. I wanted to find visible evidence of this story and began my search on online. In the mid 1950’s American movie stars helped promote the adoption of Greek “orphans” by posing in front of the Acropolis. I had heard and read of my grandfather’s story of the actress Jane Russel receiving the baby my grandmother carried on flight to America for five dollars compensation, for delivery to an American family. But a whole world opened up when I began to search for some corroborating evidence. I found the scholar Gonda Van Steen, Chair of Hellenic Studies at Kings College London, I learned of the “orphans for sale” in Greece, and the connection to post WW2 American passion for adoption, fostered by the government and Hollywood, and I stumbled across footage of the actual flight, with my mother on the phone with me while we looked, in shock. The actual plane, the actual baby in Jane Russel’s arms. Layers of opacity, bigger and brighter monuments hiding smaller ones. Here was my only home movie of the past, but my family was hidden in the image, traces of paint in the marble. When I purchased a 4k transfer from the AP library that owns the film, amazingly the little windows on the plane in the distance became partially visible, small faces of immigrants staring out at the movie star, baby and press on the tarmac. The baby in this story is an old man now. Gonda helped me to find his name, he ended up in Iowa. From what I see, of the visible traces about his life, the American promise did not work out as intended for him.
I have been making connections with family and community members in Athens, with scholars and institutions such as the Jewish Museum. I have been filming in 16mm, stereo photography, with a gimbal video camera, creating sewn and collage animations. I have been recording sound, conduction interviews and made two trips to Athens. My approach is to create a series of works, through which I can approach this journey springing forward from my grandfather’s manuscript, but not an illustration of it. As Philip Carabott, another scholar in Athens that I connected with through Gonda, says, it is a continuous search. The search is necessary and human. The search is its own story conducted through multiple projects and cinematic means. I want to look, and I want to learn to see what is still there.
At this time, I have completed my first installation within this work in progress. I participated in large projection mapping festival. Where the other installations where large and on buildingsl, I went small, in between buildings, and soft. I wanted to provide an alternative projection work in this case, and also speak about my concerns and Athens. The project involved stringing 3 clothes lines in the distance of a commercial alley downtown Binghamton. On the line were hung white pants, shirts, dresses, skirts- alternating back on each successive line. As these white clothes stirred in the wind, the reflected the colorful images of the streets of Psirri and Thisseo. Sometimes the same image was broken and joined across multiple garments. But there was always one that carried a very different image, intimate, black and white; my aunts face, an upward look at the lines drawn across the street there, their clothes there on our cloths here. I will pursue more expanded cinema pieces as I work on the short films from the journey I am on.
The first short film will involve the flight from Athens to NY. I have leased rights to the AP footage of the plane’s arrival with Jane Russel.
Traces with Elikem
Traces performed and captured by scanner and monitor surfaces. Other surfaces include paper and film. Light reflects and passes through, layers slide past and sometimes meet, punctuated by sounds vibrating and percussive. With the participation of Samuel Elikem Kwame Nyamuame, Ph.D. Visiting Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology and Dance Departments of Music, Theater (Dance) & Africana Studies
Skin in the Game
As a filmmaker I could never throw anything away. Frames cut out of a larger films were still amazing objects, like fragments of time made visible and tactile, and I kept most of them. At some point I began making collages on glass with these frames and mounted them in light boxes. Here I could see all the individual moments gathered in a very different way then when they were projected as one film. Here, their animated quality was removed, physical and immobile, but still a new whole out of many disparate parts. With Skin in the Game, I began a process of returning all those frames to time based sequences by scanning the collages, cutting them up and animating them digitally. Elements of the soundtrack are also made of fragments heard, written down, and then read by my daughter Maya when she was 9 years old. She is now almost 18. The end of the film is made from a longer piece of found footage, also kept for many years, and appreciated as a strip of film in hand and re- animated along with the optical printer used to view it. This collection is tactile and intimate because of the way it has been kept and played with over time and through process.
A very long process starting with original Super 8 film.
Next came hand processing, printing onto 16mm and then 35mm.
Back down to 16mm, building imagery along the way including
cutting and taping the film. Finally, printed via JK
onto a DSLR and finished digitally with sound.
Explores the scale of the frame and the c
hanging ratio or the screen.
In Glass Houses
Synopsis: An interview is conducted exploring methods used to facilitate a real research project whose aim it is to capture and analyze human micro-expressions for use by a variety of industries (including lie detection and entertainment/animation).
But the particular research or the use of human subjects is really just a point of departure. This film takes a moment to touch on our use of technology and vice versa.
The images in the film are created in three ways; 1. by scanning the actor and two other support figures interacting with the scanner glass and each other, one frame at a time 2. By filming the actor revealed by the light of the scanner as he is being scanned. (Each light pass represents a frame of the reanimated scanner image) 3. through line drawings and smears which trace or mark points of contact between the actor and the scanner glass.
Close The Lid, Gently: A Home/Document/Scan
Close the Lid Gently is a video made entirely from 2 home desktop scanners- one a photo scanner, the other a refurbished low end document scanner. Each has it's own texture and sees the domestic environment in it's own particular way, one scan at a time. This piece deals with the deliberate misuse/re-purposing of commercial image producing machines for a slow, individual, low end, approach to the motion picture making process
Performance For Perfection 1200
The piece is experimental, a photographic animation with some drawing, and a portrait of a man and his views on life and art. The audio interview recordings that I did with Don Boros had to be painstakingly mated with phoneme mouth shapes that we scanned in order to create moments of sync sound. The result is an uncanny piece that is at times both "both quotidian and numinous" Gregg Biermann