an incisive review by David Bendiksen in MFJ’s Fall 2002 issue
An evening of artists’ and experimental film on place and placemaking
Join me for a stunning program of 11 short-form films by local filmmakers living along the Connecticut River. Celebrating (but not limited to) work shot and screened on celluloid, the program has been curated by myself and David Bendiksen. Films by David Bendiksen, Abraham Ravett, Baba Hillman, Taylor Dunne, Sarah Bliss, Josh Weissbach, Eric Stewart, Josh Guilford, Danielle Vishlitzky, Emily Drummer and Amber Bemak. Live Q&A with the filmmakers follows the screening.
Saturday, October 15 at the Montague Common Hall (the old Grange Hall on the Village Common)
34 Main Street
Montague Center, MA
7:00 showtime. Doors open 6:30 pm. Free parking on the street.
Suggested donation of $5-$15; no one turned away.
Masks encouraged but not required.
Image: Baba Hillman. Decroux’s Garden. 16mm. 2012.
New doc fest hosts Unless You’re Living It August 12-18
The launch of the promising new Mimesis Documentary Festival by the folx at UC Boulder's Center for Documentary and Ethnographic Media is welcome news. This year's program will stream online and celebrates the exciting launch of a partnership with the Flaherty: Flaherty x Boulder, a new series showcasing important works of historical and contemporary documentary media art. This first installment of Flaherty x Boulder, titled The Unwriting of Disaster, is curated by Devon Narine-Siingh, Suneil Sanzgiri, and Alia Ayman and is the first ever retrospective of films screened across the 66-year history of the Flaherty Seminar, bringing together films that work in opposition to the spectacularization of tragedy. Mimesis writes of the program:
"To write the disaster, to document the catastrophic, to bear witness to the unbearable event all seem to have become default impulses in times of crises. Luckily, this fervor to record has not remained unchallenged. Image-makers from all over the world continue to create works that overhaul the free-floating belief in the merits of visibility, archiving and inscription, thereby favoring the poetic to the sensational. This retrospective of previous films screened at the Flaherty Seminar looks to how these artists and filmmakers have responded to the explosive, destructive and inescapable forces of their times."
This look at the underclass in Mt. Forest, Ontario will be screening upcoming at both the Athens International Film and Video Festival in Athens, OH and at Experiments in Cinema, Albuquerque, NM. I'm hoping to travel to Albuquerque for EiC. Hope to see you there!
Unless You're Living It screens in a special program of The Moviate Underground Film Festival's favorite shorts: Best Shorts from the 2019 Moviate Underground Film Festival. Midtown Cinema, Harrisburg, PA. 7:00 p.m.
Seattle, Washington, November 8
November 11, 2019
Unless You're Living It screens at Engauge Experimental Film Festival in a program of shorts on the theme Senses of Time. Engauge was founded and is directed by filmmaker/artists Caryn Cline and Jon Behrens and celebrates analogue filmmaking, screening only work shot on celluloid. They write, "We reject the canard that film is dead. We are dedicated to building a cohort of analogue filmmakers in the Seattle area, as well as an audience for experimental films that has no commercial value. We employ and favor DIY techniques, matte box experiments, in-camera editing, found footage collage, direct animation, hand- and eco-processing, optical printing, pin-hole exposures, laser printing onto film, various analogue hacks, etc. Engauge also highlights the film-to-digital Lightpress Grants, offered twice yearly by our primary sponsor, the Interbay Cinema Society. Lightpress Grants help filmmakers with the funding to professionally digitize their films. Each year, we try to include recent Lightpress grant recipients in our festival."
August 25 in Jakarta, Indonesia
Unless You're Living It screens at ARKIPEL Jakarta Intnl Documentary + Experimental Film Festival in a program of shorts curated by Scott Miller Berry: UNLESS YOU’RE LIVING IT: DIS/INTEGRATION.
Scott writes: "The nine short films in this program each explore notions of loss through profound personal explorations of personal and/or political disintegration. Each short is a personal diary unto itself, delving into his/herstories in profoundly emotional ways; wherein the form is only assisted through tactility: whether hand-processed celluloid, archival video footage, in-camera creation, VHS tapes, standard-definition recording or processing films with plant life."
Two programs June 26 and June 29
EIFF's "Politics of Place" Black Box Shorts program will be twice screening Unless You're Living It this summer. I'll be at the Fest and wil then will travel to the University of Dundee to teach a daylong workshop on cameraless filmmaking June 25.
2019 Film and Video Fellowship finalist
I'm honored to have been awarded a 2019 Massachusetts Cultural Council Film and Video Fellowship finalist award. I'm grateful for the citizen activism and lobbying that make it clear to state legislators how valuable the arts are to the shared life of our commonwealth. It's taken a lot of work to get lawmakers to rebuild state arts funding to its pre-Baker levels. Activism makes a difference!
In the words of the MCC, these fellowships "...recognize exceptional work by Massachusetts artists across a range of disciplines. These highly competitive awards provide artists crucial validation among their peers and the public. They catalyze artistic advancement and pave the way for creative innovation of enduring cultural value."
2019 Film and Video panelist jurors were Shawn Cotter, Jacob Fried, Kavita Pillay, and Erin Trahan. Maya Erdelyi and Elliot Montague served as first-round readers.
I'm humbled to learn that my new film, a portrait of place and power in rural white Ontario, was yesterday awarded Honorable Mention by Montreal Underground Film Festival jurors. In the words of juror Rosanna Maule, it's an "hallucinatory and alienating experience of being marginal in North American towns today, rendered through hyper-saturated, reflected images, and the voices of those who live on the margin." And from juror Mikaela Bobiy: "Unless You're Living It evokes an indelible sense of time and place, with Bliss deftly mixing sight and sound to create afterimages of an invisible community."
A big congrats, too, to award winners Sandy McLennan, Todd Fraser, and Arianna Lodeserto! Thank you MUFF programmers, planners, projectionists, volunteers and jurors for working long, hard and with much love to serve up another stunning feast of moving image. You all rock the casbah!
Image: frame grab from Unless You're Living It
My experience working with audio I’d made of my father’s dying breath
View video about the making of Transit(ive) from my remarks at the AXW Festival screening of Transit(ive) at Anthology Film Archives, October 2018. My remarks begin at 1:21 in the short clip. Technical difficulties resulted in the loss of my full remarks, but you'll hear part of the story!
Shaking the Frame: Experimental Film from the AgX Film Collective
An evening of experimental film from AgX, Boston's artist-run lab and film collective. Talkback with attending filmmakers following the screening. Includes films from: Kathryn Ramey, Susan DeLeo, Robert Todd, Wenhua Shi, Douglas Urbank, Brittany Gravely, Peaches Goodrich, Stefan Grabowski, Nicole Prutsch, Tim Wojcik, Kimberly Forero-Arnais and Sarah Bliss. Hosted and programmed by Sarah Bliss.
AgX Film Collective goes to Beijing! June 6 and 9 at Peking University, a special screening of films from the AgX Film Collective, hosted by Wenhua Shi. Honored to be screening along with work from Stefan Grabowski, Brittany Gravely, Douglas Urbank, Robert Todd, Mike Piso and K8.
March 31: TIME is Love.11, which includes my video Orange Band, continues its international tour at the Center for Contemporary Art, Glasgow, Scotland. Curated by Kisito Assangni of CCA Glasgow, this provocative program places love squarely within the context of the urgently-needed rethinking of the construct of borders, the necessity of revolutions, and both the constraints and sustenance of customs. More info here.
Feb 24-26: TIME is LOVE.11, which includes my video Orange Band, launches its international tour in Sliema Malta at the Lily Aguis Gallery. Curated by Kisito Assangni of CCA Glasgow, this provocative program places love squarely within the context of the urgnetly-needed rethinking of the construct of borders, the necessity of revolutions, and both the constraints and sustenance of customs. .
This 82-minute program of 12 experimental films I curated for the Northampton Film Festival screened in October. Filmmakers from the AgX Film Collective approach film and time as concrete but malleable materials that can be worked by hand, elongated or cut into, and where the idea of waste begs to be turned inside out. Elasticizing and manipulating both temporal and material frames, these films address death and dying via American militarism and the cult of technology, the immigrant’s experience of displacement, the power of place and memory, the hospital-industrial complex, and the malleability of identity. Subversive, reverent, poetic, playful, and reflective, they provide insight not only into the fundamental truth of impermanence and change, but also into the fecund generative resource of close relationships fostered within and by collective communities.
Recently, I've been experimenting with making film tints and toners from the mushrooms I gather.
This Gymnopilus species will make a gorgeous yellow-orange dye when combined with an alum (potassium aluminum sulfate) mordant. These mature specimens are releasing masses of their gorgeous cinnamon-orange spores. The more mature the better for the color of the dye.
I'm thrilled to be selected as a Fellow at this summer's 63rd Flaherty Seminar, Future Remains. The Flaherty is the longest continuously-running film event in North America. Several hundred filmmakers, curators and artists gather for a week to view, discuss, analyze and probe the moving image and to explore possibilites for pushing the documentary form. Key to the Flaherty pedagogy is non-preconception, a type of beginner's mind which creates condidtions for open perception. Participants have no idea what films they'll be viewing until the lights go down and the projectors roll at the start of each session. This summer's theme Future Remains, curated by Nuno Lisboa, explores the gesture in the age of disembodiment.
With much gratitude to the LEF New England Foundation for funding my fellowship.
(Image credits clockwise from top left: Deirdre Logue, Scratch; Helen Hill, Your New Pig is Down the Road; Clint Enns, A Day in the Shint; Matt Soar, Bull Fought.)
I presented a curated program of 13 films, From the Farm, at the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival in Scotland in March 2016. From the Farm shone the spotlight on the signal work of the Independent Imaging Retreat (aka Film Farm) offered in rural Ontario every summer by Canadian experimental filmmaker Philip Hoffman and his dedicated staff. Film Farm’s 22 years of handmade experimental filmmaking have deeply influenced the work of both Canadian and international independent filmmakers and have dramatically influenced the re-imagining and implementation of artist-centered models for the teaching and production of film. Founded on a feminist pedagogy that prioritizes accessibility, presence, the body, and the centrality of relationship (with self, others, nature), Film Farm celebrates chance, play, materiality, and the handmade. Each summer in Phil’s Mount Forest barn, a small, changing group of filmmakers – some novices and some highly experienced – convene for an intensive week of shooting, hand-processing, tinting/toning, watching and editing film.
From the Farm screened work from Brett Kashmere, Pouyan Jafarizadeh, Deirdre Logue, Chris Chan Fui Chong, Karyn Sandlos, Helen Hill, Lillah Halla, Mäia Cybelle Carpenter, John Greyson, Matt Soar, Penny McCann, David Gatten, and Clint Enns.
Kind thanks to Alchemy Director Richard Ashrowan for supporting the work of Film Farm and for furthering an ecosystem of experimental moving image !
I greatly enjoyed moderating the panel Frames that Cut at the NEMG Symposium, Emerson College, Boston in early April. Frames that Cut zeroed in on work exploring strangeness and othering. Thanks to co-moderator Graham Yeager and artists and researchers Cliff Notez, Jessica Myers, Maria Servillon and Shannon VanGyzen for a stimulating dialogue discussing artistic strategies for the formation of new political consciousness that makes visible and challenges the multiple violences of our racist capitalist society.
A site-specific 16 mm film and projector sculpture-installation into the massive and complex iron infrastructure of Boston's Waterworks Museum. A collaboration with filmmakers Christina Hunt and Anto Astudillo.
Our multichannel project pump, filter, reflect will be one of many created collaboratively between AgX Film Collective filmmakers and NonEvent musician/sound artists, and designed specifically for the magnificent structure of the Waterworks.
The Waterworks was one of the country's first metropolitan water systems, built in 1887 to bring water from the Chestnut Hill Reservoir into Boston proper. It's a truly remarkable space from a time when architecture was designed not just for function, but to uplift and magnify human endeavor.
I'm thrilled to be one of 13 international experimental filmmakers selected to participate in Phil Hoffman's legendary Film Farm this summer in Forest Park, Ontario.
We'll be immersed in artisanal 16 mm filmmaking and hands-on developing, using Phil's barn and farm as our home base. Heaven, here I come!
I'm honored to have my work mentioned in a March/April Art New England article about Boston's leadership in screen-based public art. George Fifield, founding director of Boston Cyberarts, highlights the collaboration between Boston Cyberarts and the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority on Art on the Marquee. The ongoing project curates short media works designed for the nearly 80-foot-tall, three-sided, seven-screen LED structure outside of the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston.
"This is the future of public art, not bronze statues of dead white guys and static plop art, but moving, changing media that reflect the times we live in. Unique among New England cities, Boston has seen the emergence of a number of LED screen-based installations, making the city a leader in this novel breed of public art." writes Fifield.
I've produced two commissions for the Marquee.
(Pictured in image: the work of artist Ellen Wetmore),
Part of Transideology: Nostalgia, a film project curated by Ming Turner.
November 9 - December 20, 2015.
Trans-ideology: Nostalgia, curated by Ming Turner, was an invited film project in Berlin, Germany. Nostalgia, as the theme of this project, isolates and mythicises selected objects from the past so that we feel we are enjoying a more tranquil and conflictless past. This nostalgic past is somehow not completely the reality, rather, it is ambiguous and is purified. The nostalgic past ignores real material conditions and tensions, and embraces an emotional utopia. Nostalgia offers a comfort zone where we find a peaceful and conflictless past, and where we escape from the hectic and demanding real life in capitalist society. As nostalgia reduces our critical engagement with the past, history is not entirely real but is selected and mythical. Therefore, nostalgia is based on either dreamy or subjective views of the past, or fantasy about the future. The screening aims to show selected lens-based work which is created with the ideology of recalling the internal and utopian world of individuals – either a nostalgic past or a fantasized future. (MoCA Taipei website)
A short piece from my project in development, Waterbody, was screened at Seattle Art Fair's Via 6 launch. Curation by Julia Greenway.
Recently, Massachusetts Cultural Council's blog Artsake invited me and my Blindsight collaborator, Rosalyn Driscoll, to articulate the process and intentions behind the creation of our ambitious installation, Blindsight.
Here's an excerpt:
Moving image artist Sarah Bliss and sculptor Rosalyn Driscoll (Sculpture/Installation/New Genres Fellows ’13) have just premiered their latest collaborative project, a four-channel, 30-minute, immersive sculptural video installation, Blindsight (6/11 – 7/19/15 at Boston Sculptors Gallery). Here, they retrace their journey through its maze.
Sarah Bliss: I’ve long grappled with the question of how to make meaning in the absence of a shared cultural story, religious framework or mythology. How do we face and embrace aging, loss, death, entrapment, destruction? Can we face the apocalypse of climate change without denial, and without collapse? For me, the answers lie in community and connection, and the creative act.
So I drew from a rich world of visual and cultural referents: early WWII-era paintings by Phillip Guston that depict troupes of street kids reenacting their world at war using the detritus of back alleys; filmmaker Bela Tarr’s remarkable opening scene in Werckmeister Harmonies, in which a young man injects possibility and meaning into listless has-beens in a barren bar, catalyzing them to co-create with him a literal dance of the spheres; the masks and costumes adopted by Carnival-goers as memento mori in medieval times; and Diane Arbus’ unsettling photographs of developmentally disabled people promenading in masks on Halloween.
We wanted to create an encounter with these elemental forces of Eros and Thanatos that was not fully tamed — still wild, raw, mysterious and sensual. It was also important to us to give people enough space to enter the risk of encounter. We needed to find ways they could modulate their distance.
Roz Driscoll: Right. We wanted to create an experience for visitors that would speak to the somatic, haptic dimensions of their perception—the way we sense with our bodies and respond empathically and viscerally to what we see. We wanted to create a range of sensory possibilities and to stimulate people’s perceptual powers. We wanted to reveal how context determines what we perceive — how the same image appears radically different on rippling cloth, wrinkled rawhide, hanging vellum or a flat wall; when seen from different sides, angles or perspectives; or when seen in changing relationship to other moving images, spaces or materials.
Throughout the project, we explored the territory between visual and tactile (optical and haptic) perception: in the film shoots, in the editing process, in the projections, and in the installation materials and structure. The film shoots, for example, were intensely physical and haptic as you moved with the actors and I moved with the light. The imagery then became optical when footage was transferred and compartmentalized onto the flat computer screen for editing. It was a revelation when you realized that the editing process could only be accomplished by projecting the images onto the materials and spaces of the maze, thus returning the imagery to hapticity and tangibility.
BLINDSIGHT is a journey through a maze of translucent, reflective surfaces—rawhide, paper, metal and fabric—that receive multiple video projections. Images, surfaces, spaces and viewers activate and transform each other. The moving images on the sensuous materials invite many ways of sensing, feeling, and thinking. They generate a visceral, haptic experience of bodies, landscapes and water–above, below and within. Sound by Scottish sound artist James Wyness.
Boston Sculptors Gallery
486 Harrison Ave, Boston, MA 02118
Gallery open Wed-Sunday, 12-6
Boston Globe art critic Cate McQuaid on the "sacred space" of Blindisight in her review:
"A dreamlike ‘Blindsight’
Visiting sculptor Rosalind Driscoll and filmmaker Sarah Bliss’s ambitious, lyrical installation, “Blindsight,” at Boston Sculptors Gallery is like walking into a dream. Bliss’s four-channel video plays over fabric, paper, and rawhide screens that Driscoll has installed throughout a darkened room. Images beam onto and through them; they wrinkle and smear along with the rawhide.
Bliss’s images of rushing rain and ice on branches frame the central narrative, an unspoken, choreographed exchange among a handful of actors, often with water pouring down on them. Moody and beautiful, their movements drift into nearly erotic encounters and into conflict; often, they feel akin to ritual. Indeed, Driscoll’s environment, dark with filmic windows of light, feels like a sacred space, a labyrinth through which we yet can see."
Boston Globe, June 30, 2015
The ArtSalon Goes to Turners Falls
Artists: Amy Borezo, Sarah Bliss, Cathe Janke, Overture
Thursday, April 16, 6:30pm
The Shea Theater
71 Avenue A, Turners Falls, Massachusetts
Sarah Bliss. Production still from Blindsight.
The ArtSalon is a forum for artists and designers of all mediums to present their work and ideas in Pecha Kucha format of 20 slides x 20 seconds each. Come meet and join the artists, creators, critics, and collectors in a friendly, social gathering of conversations about the arts in our community.
Presenting artists are Sarah Bliss, Amy Borezo, Cathe Janke, and Overture. Refreshments at 6:30pm. Presentations begin at 7pm. $5 Suggested Donation.
Artist’s talk and student crits by Sarah Bliss
Whether working with choreographers, dancers, actors, historians, scientists or sculptors, Sarah Bliss thrives in bringing together divergent ways of seeing and thinking. In this talk and screening, she’ll present projects ranging from a participatory installation that involved 25 performers to a long-term project in Scotland exploring questions of faith and forgiveness with archaeologists, church historians, and farmers. The common denominator throughout is the body. An artist and filmmaker with a background in religious studies, Bliss explores the relationships between body, place, language, and memory, engaging both personal and social history. She received her M.T.S from Harvard Divinity School, teaches video production at Greenfield Community College, and serves on the Board of Temenos, an off-the-grid non-sectarian retreat center in rural Massachusetts.
In this commissioned piece, shirts and undershorts hung on a line to dry are caught by gusts of wind, bridging the space between the Marquee and its environment,. High above passersby, they billow, snap and surge. Deep, vibrant colors pop, and we are swept up in the joyful, lyric and rhythmic dance.
Laundry Line offers a playful respite from the chaotic stress of the urban grid. It engages the senses of the commuter caught in gridlock or of the businessperson heading for a meeting. It helps ground viewers in simple pleasures offered through the body and senses: experiences we’ve become less and less accustomed to.
At the same time, the piece gently tweaks the professional urbanite, reminding him of his daily masquerade by revealing the independent and hidden life of a work costume just like his, and referencing the unseen body now freed of clothes -- just as the clothes themselves are freed by the wind.
Laundry Line makes playful reference, too, to the Marquee’s location in the Seaport district: these too, are sails in the wind.
Boston Cyberarts and the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority have teamed up to create “Art on the Marquee,” an ongoing project to commission Public Media Art for display on the new 80-foot-tall multi-screen LED marquee outside the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center in South Boston. The largest urban screen in New England, this unique digital canvas is one of the first of its kind in the U.S. to integrate art alongside commercial and informational content as part of the MCCA’s longstanding neighborhood art program. “Art on the Marquee” offers artists more than 3,000 square feet of digital display on seven screens, providing full-motion video and a viewership of more than 100,000 pedestrians and motorists. The marquee is visible for a half a mile in many directions.
You Leave Here screens November 22 at Airspace Projects in Marrickville, Australia. The Projection, Performance, Kinetic Night screening is a special feature of the gallery's show In Motion, addressing contemporary perspectives on flux and change.
This piece was created in Ireland in response to the powerful links between memory, language, place, and body there. I'm excited about the opportunity for this work to engage these issues in another former British colony where there was also an effort to destroy indigenous culture, language and people.
For more info, see: www.airspaceprojects.com
June 5-7: Following its success at the STIFF film festival in Seattle in May, The Beautiful Strange Land (Án Tír Álainn Aisteach) is featured in a special edition curated by Interstitial Theatre at LxWxH Gallery in Seattle, WA.
A languid meditation on the loss of language and its rootedness in land/place. Never seeing the speakers, we listen in as a younger female voice with a U.S. accent, and an older male voice with a strong Irish brogue work together to decipher a written Irish text. Alternately humorous and poignant, the conversation between the two matches the rhythm of the never-ceasing waves which pull seaweed back and forth in swirling eddies amidst constantly shifting light. The language that has been largely lost to the contemporary Irish is mirrored in the sublimation of its audio record to the mesmerizing beauty presented on the screen.
Filmed in Ballinskelligs, Co. Kerry, Ireland.
Film still from Covenant. 2014.
The pheasant cock is strutting and croaking outside my window, searching for his dappled hen in the high reedy rushes; a thin but stationary mist hangs on the hills; and inside, I am drying the intricate, veined skin of a ewe’s afterbirth, spread out in front of the stove on the floor. Yesterday, it spilled from a ewe after her lamb emerged. Fragile and strong, tensile and responsive, its network of dense fleshy blood-pots and intricate branching veins tells the story of its exquisite attunement to the sifting and sieving, channeling and exchange of continually-circulating life force.
Filled with gratitude for the deep and steady contact with both the matter and spirit of life and death, I begin to take my leave. Today is packing up; tomorrow I head to London for a week of research into practice-based PhD programs which will support my filmmaking and research on multiple levels. Return, return, return, return.
Film still from Covenant. 2014.
I stumbled upon her, lying paralyzed and dying on her side in her own feces, her face encrusted with blackened-dried blood which had poured from the now-empty eye socket that had held the eye that was pecked out by the crow whose claws dug into her head where it perched as it ate.
Torn between filming the ewe's dying shudders and driving miles back to the farm to try and find a shepherd to come and help (which could only mean a gun) - and knowing that he would be miles away on his quad in the hills tending to lambings-gone-bad, I pushed away the urge to just sit with this being-in-pain, to hold it tenderly, to expand the both of us into a space of love,
and chose to film it instead.
What is worse: that I did not feel in that moment something within me break, or all the little choices made up until that time that had carved away my capacity to allow myself to be empty? Is there any redemption in the fact that I struggled momentarily? I fear my own corruption. My heart breaks now.
It isn't important to say that the ewe did not die; that she was saved. That while I was filming, I heard the faraway buzz of a quad bike, and searching high above me in the hills, saw its speck racing toward a flock of sheep, herding. Spreading my legs wide and fanning my arms back and forth overhead, I largened myself in this vast landscape, waving over and over, hoping he would see and come.
When finally he did, he took one look, strode to her, plunged his hands deep into her fleecy flank, and took hold, heaving her back onto her feet and propping her against a stone fence. The left-side legs on which she had lain were crumpled under her, too weak to bear her weight.
But he said she'd recover, and that he would put antibiotic ointment on her eye.
The old language still alive on his tongue, he told me that the ewe had been "cowp't" -- (the Scots verb "cowp" means "to fall over.") Once that happens, a sheep cannot right itself. If not righted, it will die within seven days when its bladder swells and explodes. Judging from the amount of manure under her, he guessed she'd been there two days already. She was born blind nine years ago, and is kept as a pet. Each year, she is tupped (bred to a "tup" ram) to bear a lamb, whom she will protectively follow everywhere, and so the lamb takes care of her as she takes care of it.
Unable to see, and without a lamb so far this year, she must've stumbled on something and cowp't.
I thought of the photojournalist who told of being in Rwanda at a time of great famine, and coming upon a wretchedly cadaverous starving child lying prone at the edge of an airstrip, moments or minutes from death. A few feet away, a buzzard stood watch. What should he do: take the once-in-a-lifetime shot that would speak volumes of the extremity of suffering there, or go to the child with love and compassion, pick her up and cradle her in his arms? In the time it would take to set up the shot and click the shutter, the child would be dead.
He took the shot.
If I seek to be the best filmmaker that I can be, will I lose my soul? And what use am I then, as filmmaker or human being, when it is gone?
For the blind ewe:
Saint Francis and the Sow by Galway Kinnell
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
Today's report from the Ettrick Valley: It's begun! Two-hour-old twins in the arms of shepherd Ogg Jackson at Cossarshill Farm. Ogg buried his face in their fleece, breathing deeply, "How I love the smell of a newborn lamb!" And indeed, when I too buried nose and cheek and lips in the silky soft down, I swooned: heather and sunshine and a hint of lanolin, all melted together with nary a tarnish.
Earlier, after finding a stillborn lamb, Ogg had retrieved an extra lamb from a neighboring shepherd, skinned the stillborn, and slipped the tubular sock-like skin onto the replacement babe. Mum ewes almost always reject a strange lamb in the place of their own dead baby unless it has their baby's scent. The skin does the trick. When we checked on the pair later, I laughed out loud watching the little blackface racing around behind his adopted mama, his cozy skin coat flapping up and down on his back in the wind, looking just like a kid in her Halloween cape!
Installation view of What it is to Want It at the Alchemy Film Festival.
The first two film episodes from my Covenant project premiered last week at the Alchemy Film Festival, Scotland. What it is to Want It is a two-channel installation that brings voice to the inner wrestlings of 17th century Scots whose worldviews were shaped by the sternly passionate and demanding ideals of the Scottish Reformation, and the rugged, unforgiving land that supported them.
The larger multimedia project Covenant explores the psychogeography of the Borders and the radical shifts in the cultural imaginarium effected there by the Reformation. Working outward from research into the life and writings of my ancestor, Reverend John Livingston, who was a leading Covenanting minister in the Borders in the 1600s, Covenant investigates the ways in which Reformers’ ideas about the body, voice, and community were shaped by and are reflected in the land. The fiercely passionate and often agonized struggle for a clear knowing of one’s personal salvation; the far-reaching system of discipline used by the church to control the body and its desires; the valorization of Word/text over sensual sacramentalism; and the apocalyptic theology of the extremist Covenanters are all sites for filmic investigation.
Film still from Gown of Repentance.
Gown of Repentance, a second film episode from Covenant, deciphers and interrogates the case of a woman publicly disciplined and shamed in 1677 by her kirk session (church court) for the sin of adultery. The only information we have of her case is found in the abbreviated written minutes left by West Calder's Kirk Session clerk, and the film engages the viewer in decoding and translating excerpts from these minutes to uncover an alternative interpretation of the historical events which might be truer to this woman’s experience, as opposed to that of the church power structure.
The first two filmic episodes from my multimedia project Covenant, will premiere April 3-6 at Scotland's Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival . Alchemy is an international festival of experimental film and artists’ moving image held in the ex-industrial mill town of Hawick, in the Scottish Borders. The annual festival is themed each year, and focuses on screening work that relates to the natural world, to landscape and to humankind’s relationship with nature. The festival has a focus on high quality artistic projects and experimental short film, but also hosts thematically related feature length screenings.
I'll be premiering two short films: Gown of Repentance, which deciphers and interrogates the case of a woman publicly disciplined and shamed in 1677 by her kirk session (church court) for the sin of adultery. The only information we have of her case is found in the abbreviated written minutes left by West Calder's Kirk Session clerk.
What it is to Want It, a new two-channel room-sized installation, will run throughout the festival in a repurposed mill building. What it is to Want It brings voice to the inner wrestlings of 17th century Scots whose worldviews were shaped by the sternly passionate and demanding ideals of the Scottish Reformation, and the rugged, unforgiving land that sustained them.
Thursday, February 6, 6:30-8:30 pm
Please join me at this curated sound cinema event featuring audio works from around the world. "Sheep Dip", a sound piece from my Covenant project, is on the program. Kinokophonography is a unique public gathering of phonographers, field recordists and listeners, coming together in celebration of the sounds around us.
Listen to Sheep Dip and learn more.
The LPA offers free admission to programs on a first come, first served basis. Admission lines form one hour prior to each program in the lobby of 111 Amsterdam Ave. At that time one ticket is provided per person. Call 212.642.0142 for more detailed information.
Image: Jez Riley French
Unable to tear myself away from this place and work on my new film project, Covenant, I’ve extended my stay in the Ettrick Valley another three weeks. Days are spent filming, interviewing, and rambling in the hills and valleys; nights researching and reviewing footage. I’m immersed in the Scottish Reformation, grappling with the particular ways the intense desire for direct access to God, changed perceptions of time and the body, and rebellion against the perverse exercise of authority were played out on this land, in this place.
Long after the reformers became the establishment and began to ease up on some of their bitterly-fought-for principles, those with less willingness to compromise split off from the Church of Scotland and formed the Free Church. Here in Ettrick, they built a chapel in 1889 in Tushielaw, the second Free Church in the Valley. This fierce congregation lasted 46 years before dissipating. The chapel was then grafted back onto the trunk from which it had split, but parishioners fell away, and the building was ultimately sold to an “incomer” painter who converted it to a studio. She’s long since moved away, leaving behind testament to the power of creation and its confrontation with change. The church stands empty now, creatures of all shapes and sizes finding their way to shelter through cracks, holes, and gaps made wider with each glancing pass of fur and feathers.
Frost coats the bog rush in the sheep meadows on Cossarshill at sunrise this morning when I wake to greet the day, contrasting with the scene I'll film tonight at Ancrum's Guy Hawkes bonfire. The bonfire, one of many throughout the UK, celebrates the foiling of a plot by English Catholics in 1604 to burn Parliament and assassinate King James the I of England and the VI of Scotland, with the goal of restoring a Catholic king. Fawkes was captured, tortured and planned to be burned, but he jumped first from the scaffold and broke his neck, avoiding the agony to come of death by fire. Forbidden the right to rest in peace, since 1605 his effigy has been burnt atop towering piles of rubbish and scrapwood in town squares across the land every November 5. For many years, his effigy was joined or replaced by effigies of the pope and other hated figures.
Sculptor Roz Driscoll and I are collaborating on development of a new video sculpture-installation exploring the boundaries of the body and the transformation of matter. Working back and forth between the human body and cattle skin (both wet and raw, and also dried as rawhide), we're deconstructing the boundaries between one form of matter and another, and forefronting the truth of the seamlessness between all material reality
(Image credit: Roz Driscoll)
Image: Installation shot. Credit: Sarah Bliss
Poetics of Skin sculptural video installation travels to California's Esalen Institute for Somatics Symposium
Somatics practitioners, permaculturists and eco-activists, including my Poetics collaborator Rosalyn Driscoll, are convening at Esalen later this month to share investigations into the ways “bodily experience, cultivated deeply and inquired into, is an important doorway to overcoming the alienation of humans from other beings, and from each other.”
Roz will be presenting a new version of our sculptural video installation, Poetics of Skin, which explores the intimate entwinement of body and nature. Poetics of Skin 2, a much smaller version of our installation, projects video of a couple into an egg-or-shell-like organic rawhide chamber. The couple moves together as if trapped in the small space of the convoluted sculpture, appearing to be inside a body, an animal, or under the sea. Viewers must move around the installation to catch glimpses of the bodies through skeins of rawhide.
I'm heading to Scotland's Ettrick Valley this week, where I'm one of six moving-images artists awarded a monthlong residency sponsored by the Alchemy Film Festival. The residency supports artists whose work focuses on human relationship with the natural world. In addition to participating in masterclasses led by international filmmakers Andrew Kotting, Pip Chodorov, Luke Fowler, and Kika Nicolela, and by Gareth Evans, Film Curator at Whitechapel Gallery, London, I'll be working with Scottish sound artist James Wyness to document and record the cultural and environmental landscapes of the Tweed River Valley. To receive news updates from Scotland, sign up for my mailing list.
(photo credit: Alchemy Film Festival)
I'm thrilled and honored to have been awarded a 2013 Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship in Sculpture and Installation. Sculptor Rosalyn Driscoll and I received the award for our collaborative project Poetics of Skin. Roz created the sculpture which receives the video projection I made.
Poetics of Skin is part of an ongoing investigation Roz and I are undertaking, together and individually, into the boundaries of the body, the transformation of matter, and the thin line between human and non-human animals. Working back and forth between the human body and animal skin (both wet and raw, and also dried as rawhide), we deconstruct these boundaries, forefronting the seamlessness between material realities.
The installation in the video (one permutation of our evolving work-in-progress), consists of three translucent dried rawhide cow skins arranged to receive the looping projections of a 10-minute video. A man and a woman move together in an intimate, fluid dance. The spaces between the hides create gaps so the projected images of the two bodies fragment and multiply as they fall on successive hides. The figures, roughly life-size, appear on the surfaces of the hides but are also transmitted through the amber-colored skins. This doubling allows one to see the moving images on both sides, creating subtly different qualities and multiplying the relations. People can walk around and between the hides, resulting in shifting spatial, visual effects and providing yet another skin to receive the moving images.We are exploring the bonds, boundaries and breaches between people and between static sculpture and moving images.
Fulbright scholar Ciara Cosgrove to present on Irish legends and storytelling
Irish Cultural Center at Elms College: March 21
Cosgrove's talk, delving into the mythic Tuatha de Danann and the Ulster & Fenian Irish story cycles, will feature new soundwork of mine. All the Flesh of His Body weaves together Irish and English recitation of passages from the first century pre-Christian epic Táin Bó Cúailgne describing the "warp spasms" that transform and mutate the body of the warrior-hero Cu Chulainn as he prepares to enter battle, with field recordings of boars, bears, whales, birds, elk, alligators and bats, and Arvo Part’s Magnificat. This fluid mixing, and ultimate overtaking of the human by the animal, is emblematic of an Irish sensibility evolved in an archipelagic environment where sea, land and air ceaselessly arise and fall within the mist, merging and dissipating, continuously intermingling.
I was recently interviewed by Brown University's College Hill Independent about the ideas and process behind work in my solo show All the Flesh of His Body. Here are some highlights:
Indy: Could you speak to the “porous” nature of body and spirit as depicted in your work. Do you think humans are conscious of this fluid physical-spiritual relationship? Or is it your intention to bring awareness to it through your artwork.
SB: Yes, this fundamental truth is not part of our conscious lived experience. We are very much out of touch with our bodies in lives significantly oriented toward technology; and we prioritize vision almost to the exclusion of touch, sound, smell, and sense of movement. I do seek to communicate about these truths in my work and to inspire reflection on them. The photographic work in the show is from an ongoing project that examines the back and forth of matter, and the cycling and slippage of the body and its transformations.
I’ve been researching the structures and systems of industrial slaughterhouses, learning a lot about exactly how living bodies are transformed in massive numbers into food products. Its brutally horrific, and it’s something that our culture has chosen to sequester from the view of the public, because it is so deeply morally repugnant. I believe that it’s vitally important that this massive killing machine, which brutalizes not only the animals it slaughters but also the workers who labor within it, becomes known to us so that we can make clearer ethical choices about our own bodies’ participation in this cycle.
[Sculptor] Rosalyn Driscoll and I have been looking for ways to bring our human bodies into another kind of contact with these animal bodies. We’ve been projecting my video of human bodies onto and into and through the cattle skin. The photographic imagery in the show is made by filming a human model who is exploring, fighting with, and engaging the cattle skin. That video footage is then projected onto and through large sculptural forms that have been made with the rawhide. This new species of animal (a sort of compound cow-human) is then photographed.
The link with Ireland is explored specifically through engagement with both Christain and pre-Christian texts (St. Patrick’s 5th century Confessio, and the 1st century pre-Christian epic Tain Bo Cuailnge). The Tain exquisitely expresses the pre-Christian sensibility of fluidity of matter the continual morphing and shape shifting of human and animal, sea and sky, plant and people that are happening around us all the time.
Indy: We’ve heard rumors that you’re planning to print the photographs in this show on hide. Is this true?
SB: This presentation of the photographs is not wholly satisfactory for me. I want to have a closer marriage. I want the skin to stay present all the way through, and having it on paper was a compromise for me. I have begun experimenting with making contact prints of the images onto animal skin. I’ve been working with a wonderful old-style tannery. I can describe to the folks there the specific type of skin I’m looking for— goat or deer, sheep or cow skin with a particular quality of transparency. They are able to choose for me skins that retain the markings of the life of the animal. Including that physical evidence of the lifestory of the animal – the branding on a cow’s flank, the scars where a deer gouged its leg in a fall –is important to me.
Indy: Speaking of layering, do you connect the process to the themes in the piece? Did you choose layering for just the visual effect, or for some conceptual elegance?
SB: The layering is really important to me conceptually. My process reenacts the transformations which I’m highlighting. It starts in the real with a live human body and a semi-live animal skin (though dead, it feels alive when wet and slippery). The next transformation is the video editing and then the next layer is projecting that back onto another type of skin and then going again into photography. The process is a mirror of the ideas I’m working with, and it insists on the fact that everything is always changing.
We don’t think about it in our daily life, but if you just stop for a second and think that when you eat a hamburger, you’re taking a cow into your body and your body is literally changing cow into person, you touch into the sacred. The cow doesn’t remain a cow in you, it turns into human cells. It becomes your eyes, it becomes your skin, it becomes your stomach, and that’s incredible to me and that’s the story of the incarnation—that matter changes and that the spirit is in all of these things. We walk around and think that our bodies end where our skin ends and that on one side is us and on the other side it’s the world, but it doesn’t work that way. You’ve had the experience of driving past a place where a skunk has released its scent and you smell the skunk, right? We think we’re just passing and smelling a skunk. We’re here and the skunk was there. But what’s actually happening is cells from the skunk’s body are literally entering your body and merging with your body and becoming you. You’re becoming part skunk.
I'm honored that photographic work from my Return from Grace series is featured in the new book Infinite Instances: Studies and Images of Time, edited by Olga Ast and published by Mark Batty Publishing. From a review on Amazon.com: "Great book, visually stunning, creative while maintaining an academic direction towards the understanding and evolving perception of time.... Olga Ast brings together conversations and visual works of philosophers, and various artists and ...their unique understanding of time and its movement."
My days here in Cill Rialaig are full of mystery, wonder, and communion. Each morning, I throw open doors and windows to the day's offering: fog, rain, mist, haze, (almost never clear!), take my porridge out to the broad flat stone in the low wall that skirts my cottage, and consider the sea, the bounds of my being expanding beyond naming.
This morning's gift, which I now pass on:
Many of you have been asking about work created during my recent residency at Cill Rialaig in Ireland. The video You Leave Here is the first of many projects begun there to be completed. It explores the relationship of the body to the land, the record and expression of that relationship in language, and the cultural and material consequences of rupture from land and Place. Layered tracks of a voice trace the body’s leavetaking across a specific landscape, interweaving personal narrative, fading communal memory, and geography. The almost-balletic imagery of moving hands evokes sign language, raising the question of whether language can exist without a listener.
It's now viewable on Vimeo at: https://vimeo.com/45410627
I'm very pleased to be part of the launch of GIRRL SOUND's new podcast series, The Cat Cinderella, curated by sound artist Barbara De Dominicis. The Cat Cinderella features work by women artists who investigate sound as a distinctive element in their research. The first episode also includes a wonderful archival video of Cecilia Mangini’s 1962 film Stendali (Suonano ancora) (shown in image here), documenting the practice of funeral lamentation in rural Italy; and the work of French sound activist Gail Segalen.
Learn more about my work in Ireland, my research with voice, and the implications of the fast disappearance of the world's languages: The Cat Cinderella profile (click on second image to open my interview).
Here, a composite image from a rehearsal of new work in development with choreographer-dancer Cynthia McLaughlin. The seed for the work is the story of the tragic death of an 18th-century father and farmer, Elijah Bordwell, who is buried in the cemetery down the hill from my home. His unusually detailed epitaph reads:
"In memory of Mr. Elijah Bordwell who died January 26th 1786 in the 27th Year of his Age, having but a few days survived the fatal Night when he was flung from his horse and drawn by the stirrup 26 rods along the path as appeared by the place where his hat was found & where he had Spent the whole following severe cold night treading the Snow in a Small Circle. The Family he left was an aged Father, a Wife & 3 Small Children.
On this Side Death Man's Dangers never cease. Beyond, the Virtuous Share eternal Peace."
· Hide Not Your Face, my three-channel video installation, had its Seattle premier in a solo showing at Interstitial Theatre, Seattle, WA in August, 2011. Read an interview with me about the project here.
· Summer 2011: My Freezing-Falling series was part of a small group show, "Estados Alteros (Altered States)" at USPM Gallery, Porto Alegre, Brazil.
· Summer 2011: Work from my Anatomy of Oil series was in the traveling show "Material/Image". First at Brickhouse Gallery, Sacramento, CA, it then traveled to Reynolds Gallery, Jeannette Powell Art Center, University of the Pacific, Stockton.
· Jan-March 2011: My Anatomy of Oil series was shown in "Exquisite", a three-person show with Sand T and Allison Paschke at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth Art Gallery.
· Fall, 2010: My site-specific video installation, Before the Drop, was projected into a 3' x 2' x 3' freight elevator at the Amherst Biennial, Amherst, MA.
· Summer 2010: Walking-Marking 2 took the Walking-Marking Project into new territory, a collaborative performance with 23 participants who performed the piece in the A.P.E Gallery's streetfront window proscenium. Part of the group show, "Here", which addressed presence, time, and place. Northampton, MA.
A day of heavy rain means a day in town scouting locations for upcoming shoots. Here, the iron face of the seven-foot-tall disused coal burner in the dark bowels of Hawick's old mill. The coal burner powered the knitting machines clattering away on the floors above after the immense water wheel was put to rest.
Nearby to the coal burner, lovely Lindsay, the building manager giving me a private tour, points to a small, low, partially-hidden wooden door secured with an ancient bolt. With a sweet half-smile, he asks me to open it.
Slightly wary, I push the bolt and swing the door open, gasping in delighted surprise when it reveals a long low arched channel sculpted into the 8-foot thick foundation walls. A man's height below and at the other end of the channel: the roaring river, turbulent and muddy after days of heavy rain!
Lindsay smiles. "The poaching station," he tells me. "So the men could have fish for lunch." In Scotland, even now, fishing rights are held by the wealthy landowners whose land the waters run through. But in the mill, many a stomach was well fed for only the cost of the climb down the ladder and the labor to pull the fish from the wash.
Here in the Scottish Borders, folks tell you where they're from with the name of their hill or valley instead of their town. I'm making my home in the Ettrick Valley, which runs along the Ettrick Water between hills that where I'm from would be called mountains.
As I settle in, I seek to come to know this place thru' time spent in the hills where I hike up, up, up into the clouds until I can't tell if it's raining or if I'm just a condensation pole for their kisses. My Wellies (magnificent knee-high rubber boots) are my best friend. This is sheep country, and the hills are mostly denuded from long ago. Farms are huge -- the one I live on is 1,400 acres. Much of the old system of land ownership is still in place -- huge tracts of land are owned by wealthy landowners and rented out as "tenancies". The rents are often below market rate, and the landowners have no financial incentive to keep the system in place, so as tenancies come up for renewal, more and more land is sold off to commercial forestry companies. Ugly swaths of monocropped Sitka spruce cover many of the hills: dead zones which harbor no birds or wildlife.
Back on Cossarshill Farm where I live, a stand of beech and birch has been planted, part of the effort to restore at least small bits of native habitat. It runs just a few trees deep along the Cossarshill Burn -- a wild and clear brook tumbling down the hills and up which salmon will soon come to spawn. Under the beech, I find robust patches of chantarelles, and gather some each night for dinner. Even tho' the stand is just a few trees deep, the farmer here refers to it as "the woodland" -- and indeed, it is a rare sight in these stark yet beautiful hills.
All in a bustle as I push off today in my modern-day winged curragh (a.k.a American Airlines!) for the remote southwest coast of Ireland, where I'll be hunkering in for the next six weeks on the Iveragh Peninsula. I've been awarded a monthlong residency at Cill Rialaig there, an artist's retreat in the partially-rebuilt abandoned ruins of a pre-Famine village of 12 cottages built on cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. I'll continue my embodied research into memory, longing, leaving, and the kinesthetic experience in sacred architecture, working both in the village ruins, and in the 6th century monastic ruins on Sceilg Mhichil, a rock outcropping rising 715 feet out of the Atlantic eight miles offshore.
To view more images of Cill Rialaig and surrounds, take a look at my Facebook photo album.
(View from Sceilg Michael toward Little Sceilg. Image credit: Lisa and David Erdman)