Peter Burr: Pattern Language

Posted by | Nicky Ni | Posted on | October 22, 2018

Peter Burr, still from The Mess, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist

Artist and animator Peter Burr creates videos, performances, and video games that conjure virtual spaces and illusive patterns. Burr’s singularity not only resides in his mesmerizing moiré sequences but also in his aesthetic of privileging every crisp pixel. This program features a series of single-channel computer animations extracted from Burr’s expanded projects. Derived from Aria End, Burr’s collaborative project with game designer Porpentine, The Mess (2016) follows a solitary woman who is absorbed by the process of cleaning an abandoned arcology, while Pattern Language (2017) uses architect Christopher Alexander’s design theories to produce a self-generated labyrinth of flickering pixels. Originally created as a media performance and digital tribute to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, Special Effect (2014) follows unnamed characters searching a lost landscape. Burr discusses the inspirations for his work and introduces his latest project, Dirtscraper, a series of iterative animations.

2012–18, USA, digital files, ca. 60 min + discussion

Peter Burr in person

Peter Burr is an artist from Brooklyn, New York, specializing in animation and installation. His work has been presented at venues across the world including Documenta 14, Athens; Le Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid; MoMA PS1, New York; and the Barbican Centre, London. Previously, he worked under the alias Hooliganship and founded the video label Cartune Xprez in 2006, through which he produced live multimedia exhibitions showcasing artists working in experimental animation. He has received numerous grants and awards including the Guggenheim Fellowship (2018), the Creative Capital Grant (2016), and the Sundance Institute’s New Frontier Fellowship (2016).

Daniel Eisenberg’s Introduction to Les Messagers

Posted by | Nicky Ni | Posted on | October 18, 2018

To recapture yesterday’s screening of Les Messagers by French filmmakers Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura, we are sharing the text of Daniel Eisenberg’s beautiful introduction to the program. Daniel Eisenberg is Professor in Film, Video, New Media, and Animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has been making films and videos at the edges of documentary and experimental media for thirty years.

In the late winter of 2017, as I was just beginning a stay in Berlin, my friend Nathanäel sent me a link to Les Messagers.  The film you are about to see describes a condition of extremes; of economic and political hardship, and a confrontation with the post-colonial condition that’s been sustained for decades. The situation of African migrants to Europe has ebbed and flowed over many years, but at this very moment has reached crisis condition…

Over the past few months, as Libya has cracked down on African migrants seeking to flee to Europe, and as Italy has clamped down on migrants who make it to their shores, Morocco has become the latest jumping-off point from the African continent for those who’ve given up everything to go to Europe. One flash point is Ceuta. It’s a Spanish enclave at the northern tip of the country, just 14 km from the European mainland. And although Ceuta and the other Spanish-flagged city on the African mainland Melilla, are just the latest points of departure for those desperate enough to risk their lives and whatever resources they may have for the unknown journey to Europe, this migration becomes visible to us only in moments of crisis.

Since the catastrophic migration of Syrian and Afghan refugees from their homelands in 2015, the silent and segregated presence of the foreigner, the stranger, and the exile, became ubiquitous on the streets of Europe’s major cities, a daily confrontation with the assumptions of privilege and distance… as we well know, our northern, western privilege allows us to live at a distance from the effects of that privilege: the colonial and post-colonial legacies, the dominion of economies that are based on remote cheap labor, resource extraction, and client state control. Who would want to live in these places?  The better question to ask is, how dire must life get to leave one’s home, family, culture, language and way of life? For leaving is a wager against the long odds of losing everything, including your life.

Differentiation begins to be felt… one is classified as a war refugee, another someone seeking amnesty, yet so many others, who do not fit into these neat European, juridical classifications remain present.  They are classified as economic refugees, and suffer the fate of in-between-ness. They are mostly Black, mostly African, and come from places as extreme as these others, but are not legally recognized as being in life-threatening conditions. Searching for subsistence, survival, or better job prospects and a higher standard of living is not something ones does easily. Economic refugees see little opportunity to escape poverty in their own countries and are willing to start over in a new country for the chance at a better life.

In a classic strategy of nationalist and racial politics: those on the right have instrumentalized the migrant as a threat to their own national way of life – an economic and cultural interloper, threatening cohesion and continuity. But the reality is quite different:  In the June 20, 2018 issue of Nature, the International Journal of Science, the headline reads:

“Migrants and refugees are good for economies”: Analysis of 30 years of data from Western Europe refutes suggestions that asylum seekers pose a financial burden.

So the real question is: what are the real motivations for these xenophobic responses? And perhaps a deeper question? Where does the responsibility lie for the historically catastrophic upheaval of peoples and cultures that the colonial adventure produced in the global south over the last 500 years?  That’s a big question indeed… but we shouldn’t shy away from asking it.

As for Les Messagers, I would only say that the film is not interested in a particular moment of crisis but the larger crisis in general. Seeing the larger condition through personal terms allows us to confront it with our senses, and through the poetic powers of cinema. That’s a power unique to this space and these tools.

In a letter to a friend just after the war in 1946, the prescient Norwegian writer Stig Dagerman wrote:

“A journalist I have not yet become, and it doesn’t look as if I’ll ever be one. I have no wish to acquire all the deplorable attributes that go to make up a perfect journalist. I find it hard to understand the people I meet at the Allied Press hotel – they think that a small hunger-strike is more interesting than the hunger of multitudes. While hunger-riots are sensational, hunger itself is not sensational, and what poverty-stricken and bitter people here think, becomes interesting only when poverty and bitterness break out in a catastrophe. Journalism is the art of coming too late as early as possible. I’ll never master that.”

I made a commitment to Nathanäel to find a way to bring the work to our students, to make visible one of the most important and chronic crises of our age.  I am thankful to Amy Beste and Nathanäel for their persistence in finding the right time and place for the film, and of course, to Letitia and Helene for their extraordinary, poetic work.

On Les Messagers

Posted by | Nicky Ni | Posted on | October 17, 2018

Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura, still from Les Messagers, 2014. Image courtesy of the artists and Prima Luce

Throughout their individual careers, artists and filmmakers Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura have produced works about borders and individuals made most vulnerable by them. The two introduce their starkly poetic feature Les Messagers (2014) which presents the harrowing testimonies of migrants traveling from African into Europe. In advance of tomorrow’s program, we repost an interview of the directors conducted by Laetitia Jourdan from Prima Luce, production company and distributor of Les Messagers.

Why did you decide to make the film?

We initially decided to focus our work on the migrants who crossed Morocco toward Europe, and particularly at the Melilla border, a Spanish city, plot of land at the edge of Morocco. After hearing numerous stories from migrants about others who had died or disappeared, we began focusing our interviews around this question. We found out that, unfortunately, these disappearances and deaths were very frequent, but also due to a collective logic difficult to understand and to demonstrate.

We decided to base our film on this idea. According to our research, the root causes of this disappearance phenomenon are blurred. European policies, surveillance devices, and border walls have forced migrants onto a very dangerous path, and increased their criminality. For instance, when migrants want to cross the border, they have to change their identity, and if they die during this unfortunate travel, no one could know their real name, nor where they came from. They disappear.

Moreover, the criminalization of migration allows third-party coastguards (contract workers from Morocco, working in exchange for development aid from Europe) to commit abuses, deportation, and exactions outside of the legal framework. In short, migrants are treated like subhumans and no one who’s in charge of these abuses is brought to justice. Besides, the disappearance of the bodies hinders any precise accounting: there is no visibility. Most of the stories we collected have never been reported in the media, so we suppose that this phenomenon affects more people than officially estimated.

Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura, still from Les Messagers, 2014. Image courtesy of the artists and Prima Luce

What are your conclusions after making the film?

The disappearance of migrants is proof of a deep dehumanization in our civilization. What we refuse them is the right of humanity — in that human society is based on the respect of its dead. By removing this human right – which distinguish us from the animals – we’re opening the door to any form of barbarity.

What do you think of the recent crisis in the Mediterranean?

The recent crisis in the Mediterranean has been made visible as “crisis” in mainstream media because of the close succession of wrecks and the number of people who are concerned. It is an “event” in our lives. However, this is nothing new. This phenomenon has been going on for many years, without anyone understanding the role that the European policies have played in it. And because there is a real eclipse on what really happens in the European border, we introduce this phenomenon as a crisis. I [Hélène Crouzillat] would assert that it is not a “crisis” but a phenomenon built over years, whose the violence will continue to increase as long as we refuse to understand what is happening and why. The more violent and coercive control and surveillance devices are, the more the ways of travel are industrialized, the more deaths and disappearances there will be.

Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura, still from Les Messagers, 2014. Image courtesy of the artists and Prima Luce

What can be done to dignify the bodies of the migrants that drown? What can be done to identify and repatriate them?

It is essential to honour each migrant’s memory, although because of the reasons discussed earlier, we often don’t know their real identities. Families, friends, migrants themselves, need to memorialize these deaths, whatever the way to do it. Unfortunately, these acts of memory make sense only when the reasons of the death are known and understood, and it’s rarely the case here. In fact, it is rare to be able to identify and repatriate the bodies. It might be possible with many human and financial resources, but I don’t know how Europe could participate in a system like that without acknowledging its role in the deaths and disappearances itself?

What we have observed during shooting is the fact that for now, the memorial process (keeping the identity and sharing it, taking care of the bodies and burying or repatriating them) is based on individual initiatives.

Where do these bodies mostly end up?

It’s difficult to say something about it… During our work, we followed no association (for example, the Red Cross, or other international organization charged with the collection of bodies). We discovered in Zarzis, in the South of the Tunisia, two common graves in the middle of a vacant lot. Concerning these two common graves, the authorities just have moved the bodies from the coast, and buried them discreetly, aside. Clearly they didn’t have the means to identify the bodies. They acted quickly, confronted by the broad scope of the facts.

Founded in 2012, Prima Luce is a production company based in Bordeaux, France.

Oct 18 – Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura: Les Messagers

Posted by | Nicky Ni | Posted on | October 15, 2018

Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura in person

Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura, still from Les Messagers, 2014. Image courtesy of the artists and Prima Luce

Throughout their individual careers, artists and filmmakers Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura have examined the harrowing histories of borders and the individuals made most vulnerable by them. Their starkly poetic film Les Messagers (2014) focuses on the border at Melilla, a Spanish city at the northern edge of Morocco. Through the testimonies of migrants attempting to cross into the European city by land or to the continent by sea, Crouzillat and Tura expose the dark irony of a guard’s claim that the border “does no harm.” Each migrant recounts the ways they escaped death over the course of their individual journeys. Each also tells the stories of those who did not—adults and children dying of exhaustion, violence, or drowning. With carefully composed shots of the Mediterranean, Moroccan desert, and migrant grave sites, Crouzillat and Tura convey the desolation of these “messengers” who bear witness to the metaphysical costs of geopolitics. In French, Arabic, English, Spanish, and Pulaar with English subtitles.

Presented in collaboration with SAIC’s Department of Liberal Arts and Department of Visual and Critical Studies.

Hélène Crouzillat is a documentarian. Her fields of investigation focus on labor, processes of relegation, and resistance in society. Speech—its collection and formulation—is at the center of her practice. She works at the intersection of cinema and live performance, experimenting with different forms of narrative. Crouzillat’s principal artworks are: Corps de métiers (2011–12), En travail (2014–15), St-Ouen 01(2016–17), Amnia (2016–17). She is currently working on a feature-length film, L’Effet Bahamas. She is a lecturer at Université Paris XIII.

Laetitia Tura is a photographer and filmmaker whose projects focus on geopolitical borders and the invisibility of the experiences of exiles. In addition to projects related to Les Messagers (2014), she has made works on the border of Southern Lebanon (Jnoub, 2001) and the border between Mexico and the United States (Linewatch, 2004–06). She is currently finishing production on Ils me laissent l’exil, a film on the memory of the Spanish dictatorship. Tura’s work has been exhibited at Galerie du bar Floréal, Paris; Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration, Paris; Galerie d’Art de l’Instituto Tecnológico de Sonora, Mexico; International Biennale de l’Image Possible, Liège, Belgium; as well as the film festivals Cinéma du Reél, Paris and Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, among others. She has held a résidence de réalisation du Grec at the Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration, Paris and a residency at Périphérie, Montreuil, France. Tura studied at Université Paris VIII.

On Stephen Varble

Posted by | Nicky Ni | Posted on | October 10, 2018

Daniel Cahill as Sage Purple Pythagoras from Stephen Varble’s Journey to the Sun, ca.1980. Photographer unknown.

In the 1970s, Manhattan-based artist Stephen Varble gained infamy for his gender-confounding costume performances. Art historian and curator David Getsy, who will present excerpts of Varble’s ribald unfinished epic, Journey to the Sun (1978-1983), at the event tomorrow, shares his research on Varble’s artistic practices in relation to the video. This screening coincides with the exhibition, Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble, that Getsy curates at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York. The following excerpt comes from his curatorial text for the exhibition.

Stephen Varble’s last five years were consumed with working on an epic, operatic work of video art: Journey to the Sun. It started in 1978 as a performance about the mythology of Greta Garbo, and Varble invited friends to his Riverside Drive apartment to view his monologues accompanied by projected slides. His ambitions soon outgrew this format, and he turned to video for its ability to combine text, image, and performance. He considered these videos to be revivals of illuminated Medieval manuscripts with their rich visual play between words and pictures, and he called his group of collaborators in the video the “Happy Arts School of Manuscript Illumination.” The aim of the “school” was to promote Varble’s vision of societal transformation through the making of modern fables in the form of videos, books, and prints.

Still from Stephen Varble’s Journey to the Sun (1978-1983)

Journey to the Sun tells the story of a musician, the Grey Crowned Warbler, who undergoes tribulation and metamorphosis on a journey to transcendence. The tale is a loosely autobiographical fable of an artist who encounters a stern mystical teacher, Sage Purple Pythagoras (played by his partner, Daniel Cahill) who tests the Warbler. Many of Varble’s iconic costumes feature in the video, and he combined elements of his own history with references to literature, religion, and popular culture (notably, Garbo). Combining heavily scripted monologues with improvised performances, Journey to the Sun does not offer a tidy or easily understood narrative. Rather, it sketches a fantastic and surreal visual world in which dreams are realized through the transformations of everyday objects, popular imagery, and rubbish.

Still from Stephen Varble’s Journey to the Sun (1978-1983)

To make this “rodeo-paced” video, Varble filled his apartment with drawings and writings on the walls, blacked out the windows, and began filming scenes both scripted and improvised with collaborators. Journey to the Sun is remarkable for its time due to the complexity and density of the video editing — all of which was done by Varble in the apartment. He liked video tape for its ability to be reproduced cheaply, and he hoped to make multiple “video books” to send into the world. Varble only completed about thirty percent of his planned work before his death from AIDS-related complications in the first days of 1984. This is but a fragment of the much longer video epic Varble hoped would be his major contribution. It is being shown publicly for the first time in relation to the retrospective exhibition Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York, from 29 September 2018 to 27 January 2019.

David Getsy is an art historian, art writer, and curator. His books include Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender (2015) and Queer (2016). His other recent curatorial projects are Jared Buckhiester: Love Me Tender, a 10-year survey of drawings, for the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division in New York (2017) and an exhibition of Stephen Varble’s xerographic prints for Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky (2018). Getsy holds a BA from Oberlin College and a PhD from Northwestern University. He has received fellowships and awards from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Queen Mary University of London, the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Clark Art Institute, and the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, among others. He teaches at SAIC, where he is the Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History.


For further Reading:

New York Times feature on “Rubbish and Dreams

David Getsy interviewed by THEM magazine on the Stephen Varble’s retrospective

Essay by David Getsy previewing the exhibition

Oct 11 – Stephen Varble: Journey to the Sun

Posted by | Amy Beste | Posted on | October 8, 2018

Presented by David Getsy

Stephen Varble, ca.1980, wearing his Typewriter Ribbon Dress (1975-76). Photographer unknown.

In the 1970s, Manhattan-based artist Stephen Varble gained infamy for his gender-confounding costume performances and anti-commercial disruptions of galleries, banks, and boutiques. He retreated from public view in 1978, focusing instead on an epic, unfinished video, Journey to the Sun, until his death in 1984. Ribald, complex, and unorthodox, the video features elaborately costumed performers in a surrealist fable of a messianic martyr. Drawing on the legacies of Jack Smith, Greta Garbo (with whom he identified), and his own autobiography, Journey to the Sun also absorbs Varble’s previous performance characters and costumes into a self-created environment of found objects and street trash. Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History David Getsy, curator of Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York, presents a selection of excerpts from the four surviving hours of Journey to the Sun and discusses Varble’s transformative approach to gender.1978–83, USA, U-matic video to digital file, ca 60 min + discussion

Stephen Varble (1946–84) was a performance artist, playwright, fashion designer, and video artist. He studied at the University of Kentucky as an undergraduate and earned his MFA in film directing from Columbia University. In his first years in New York, he was associated with Fluxus and created a number of collaborative works with his then-partner Geoffrey Hendricks. In the mid-1970s, he became infamous for his Costume Tours of New York, which involved impromptu street performances and costume sculptures made from found objects. The 2018 retrospective at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art is the first exhibition dedicated to Varble’s work in more than three decades.

David Getsy is an art historian, art writer, and curator. His books include Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender (2015) and Queer (2016). His other recent curatorial projects are Jared Buckhiester: Love Me Tender, a 10-year survey of drawings, for the Bureau of General Services—Queer Division in New York (2017) and an exhibition of Stephen Varble’s xerographic prints for Institute 193 in Lexington, Kentucky (2018). Getsy holds a BA from Oberlin College and a PhD from Northwestern University. He has received fellowships and awards from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Queen Mary University of London, the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Clark Art Institute, and the National Gallery of Art’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, among others. He teaches at SAIC, where he is the Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History.

On Steffani Jemison

Posted by | Nicky Ni | Posted on | October 3, 2018

Steffani Jemison, illustration, 2017.

Spanning performance, music, video, and installation, the work of Brooklyn-based artist Steffani Jemison draws upon Black vernacular culture to produce new modes of expression. In advance of Jemison’s screening and listening session at Conversations at the Edge tomorrow, which also coincides the artist’s solo exhibition at Iceberg Projects, we have invited Sampada Aranke, Assistant Professor in Art History at SAIC to introduce the central piece of the program, Sensus Plenior (2017).

Sensus Plenior (2017), the title of Steffani Jemison’s most recent video work, is a phrase that can indeed characterize Jemison’s entire artistic practice. The phrase has popularly been translated from Latin as “fuller sense” or “fuller meaning,” and often is used in relation to Biblical exegesis on how the scripture’s meaning exceeds the mortal hands that scribed the text itself. These doublings— between the written word and the senses, knowledge and understanding, meaning and the excesses of it— are central to Jemison as they point to the limits and capacities of language and its uptake. The simultaneity of the fullness of senses and the fullness of meaning are source material in Jemison’s entire artistic oeuvre.The artist has steadily worked to point us to the complexities and limits of language, the secreted modes of Black radical expression, and activations of the body as a gestural container in all of her work. Mobilizing minimalist aesthetic forms in her video, installation, and sculptural work, Jemison’s practice searches for an aesthetics that might enable us to encounter the richness of those histories otherwise unaccounted for within dominant art histories.

Steffani Jemison, still from Sensus Plenior, 2017.

Sensus Plenior (2017) visualizes the relationship between gesture and interpretation as a considered undertaking of the hermeneutics of Black expressive form. Ordained minister Susan Webb centers the work as a figure whose movement oscillates between the quotidian and theatrical. Jemison’s adept attention to the richness of gesture appears here as a hypnotic engagement with the ecstatic. Each gesture accumulates, each bodily movement communicates, each sonic note quivers. The black, white, and gray tones of her video palette compels us towards a history of the cinematic in relation to racialized subjects. We are taken into and out of the annals of history and into the readily sensual qualities of the present. This, perhaps, is what formulates the contours of a fuller sensational experience— not the excessive but the successive, the sequential modes of inheritance that appear in the everyday.

Sampada Aranke (PhD, Performance Studies) is an Assistant Professor in the Art History, Theory, Criticism Department. Her research interests include performance theories of embodiment, visual culture, and black cultural and aesthetic theory. Her work has been published in e-flux, Artforum, Art Journal, Equid Novi: African Journalism Studies, and Trans-Scripts: An Interdisciplinary Online Journal in the Humanities and Social Sciences at UC Irvine. She has written catalogue essays for Rashid Johnson, Sadie Barnette, Kambui Olujimi, Sable Elyse Smith, and Zachary Fabri. She’s currently working on her book manuscript entitled Death’s Futurity: The Visual Culture of Death in Black Radical Politics.

Oct 4 – Steffani Jemison: Sensus Plenior

Posted by | Amy Beste | Posted on | October 2, 2018

Steffani Jemison in person

Steffani Jemison, still from Sensus Plenior, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

Taking shape through performance, music, video, and installation, the work of Steffani Jemison (MFA 2009) draws upon Black vernacular culture to produce new modes of expression and models for community. She presents a selection of audio works alongside her latest video, Sensus Plenior (2017). Taking its title from Latin for “fuller meaning,” Sensus Plenior considers the relationship between gesture and language through the ecstatic choreography of ordained minister Susan Webb and the Master Mime Ministry of Harlem. Jemison explores similar questions around translation and transformation in Recitatif—an ongoing series of performances and recordings that use Solresol, a utopian 19th-century musical language, to reinterpret Black popular and political music like Smokey Robinson’s “Quiet Storm” and the spiritual “Mary Don’t You Weep.” Through Solresol’s capacity to generate multiple meanings from a single root, Jemison forges alternative ways for understanding history, culture, and everyday social relations. 2008–18, USA, multiple formats, ca 60 min + discussion.

Steffani Jemison (MFA 2009) uses time-based, photographic, and discursive platforms to examine “progress” and its alternatives. Currently based in Brooklyn, New York, Jemison holds an MFA from SAIC and a BA in comparative literature from Columbia University. Jemison’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at venues such as Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris; LAXART, Los Angeles; the New Museum, New York; Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Copenhagen, Denmark; among others. Her work is in the public collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Brooklyn Museum, New York; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; and Kadist Foundation, Paris and San Francisco. Jemison was the 2017–18 Mildred Londa Weisman Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University.

Concurrent Exhibition:
Steffani Jemison: Revelation
Iceberg Projects
September 16 – October 21, 2018

On Margaret Tait

Posted by | Nicky Ni | Posted on | September 26, 2018

Margaret Tait, still from Portrait of Ga, 1952.

At the shady foot of trees
Certain things grow,
But at the foot of stone grow the sun-loving
            wind–resisting short plants
With very small bright flowers
And compact, precise leaves.
The wind whips the tight stems into a vibration,
But they don’t break.

— Margaret Tait, excerpt from The Scale of Things (1960)

This Thursday’s program at Conversations at the Edge features some of the most celebrated experimental films by Scottish filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait (1918 – 1999), who explored the poetics of the everyday life through her intimate and personal lens. While she started making films in the early 1950s, they only became widely seen in Europe after the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 1970. Up until today, Tait’s films remain somewhat unknown in the United States, marking tomorrow’s program a rare occasion that surveys the filmmaker’s midcentury films, some screening for the first time in Chicago.

Born in 1918 in Kirkwall on Orkney, an archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland, Tait attended boarding school and studied medicine at Edinburgh University. During the Second World War, she served with the Royal Army Medical Corps and worked as a medic in India. A cinephile throughout her life, Tait continued to study after the war. She enrolled at the Centro Sperimentale di Photographia in Rome between 1950 to 1952, during which time she made her first film. In the 1950s, Tait was mostly based in Edinburgh, where she established Ancona Film on Rose Street in the heart of the city. She then returned to her hometown Orkney in the mid-1960s and, in the following decades, made a series of films inspired by the Orcadian grassland.

Margaret Tait, still from Portrait of Ga, 1952.

Tait was an avid photographer even before becoming a filmmaker. Family members appear frequently in her early photographs; she would work on composed photographs too, experimenting with material and exposure time. Her photographer’s sensibility recurs in her films, which delicately weave nature, figure, and movement into rhythms of color, light, and shadow. This is perhaps most salient in Portrait of Ga (1952), in which Tait contrasted unguarded shots of her mother–almost always puffing on a cigarette–against the vast and austere Orcadian landscape, resulting in something both existential and timeless.

Margaret Tait, still from Portrait of Ga, 1952.

As film curator and critic Michael Metzger remarked in a recent review on Cine-File, “one of [Tait]’s many strengths as a poet and filmmaker was a fathomless ability to draw out worldly richness from the modest surfaces of provincial life.” But her strength also extended to her being a fearless female filmmaker in the male-dominated field. It is worth noting that all but three of Tait’s thirty-two films were self-financed. According to film historian Sarah Neely, Tait was repeatedly rejected by granting institutions due to the ways her particular style and vision diverged from accepted professional practices. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Tait’s highly autobiographical and idiosyncratic body of work remains fresh and contemporary even of today. Her persistence and strength come through in even the most tender moments in her films.


For further reading

Sarah Neely, “Stalking the image: Margaret Tait and intimate filmmaking practices,” Screen 49, 2 (2008)

Peter Todd, “Margaret Tait,” LUX (2004)

Nicky Ni is a graduate student in art history and arts administration at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Sep 27 – Margaret Tait: Poems and Portraits

Posted by | Amy Beste | Posted on | September 24, 2018

Margaret Tait, still from Portrait of Ga, 1952. Image courtesy of LUX.

Scottish film-poet Margaret Tait produced an exquisite body of work combining poetry, portraiture, music, ethnography, and animation. She studied filmmaking in Rome during the height of Italian neorealism before returning to her native Scotland in the early 1950s where she found inspiration in the contrasting daily rhythms of Edinburgh and the Orkney Islands. In an early jewel of a film, A Portrait of Ga (1952), Tait cut together birdsong and snippets of Orkney lore with shots of her mother and the rugged island landscape to produce a startlingly poignant impression of family and place. She explored similar themes in later films like Where I Am Is Here (1964), Colour Poems (1974), and Aerial (1974), reflecting on the passage of time while attending to the details of everyday life. Tait often quoted Federico García Lorca’s phrase “stalking the image” to describe her practice, suggesting that if you look at something closely enough, it will speak its nature. 1952–74, Scotland, 16mm,  ca 65 min.

Margaret Tait (1918–99) was a Scottish filmmaker and poet. She qualified in medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1941 and served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the Second World War. From 1950 to 1952, she moved to Rome and studied film at the Centro Sperimentale di Photographia. Tait made more than 30 films in her life, most of them self-financed. Tait’s films have been screened at international film festivals and venues including National Film Theatre, London; Berlin Film Festival; Edinburgh International Film Festival; Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw, Poland; Arsenal–Institute for Film and Video Art, Berlin; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; among other places. Tait also published three books of poetry and several short stories.

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    Conversations at the Edge is a weekly series of screenings, performances, and talks by groundbreaking media artists.


    CATE is organized by SAIC's Department of Film, Video, New Media, and Animation in collaboration with the Gene Siskel Film Center and SAIC's Video Data Bank, Conversations at the Edge is a dynamic weekly series of screenings, performances, and talks by groundbreaking media artists.


    Programs take place Thursdays at 6pm at the Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N. State / Chicago, IL / 312.846.2600), unless otherwise noted.