»Things are always different to how they appear – even to themselves.« In this conversation between two filmmakers, subjectivity and memory are introduced as inherently lacking and inconsistent yet fundamental components of making and approaching work. Following this line of thought results in a multiplicity of perspectives in which singular characters are replaced by stand-ins, doubles, or puppets. It is exactly through this alienation that the uncanny feeling of being a stranger to yourself becomes urgently felt.
Their films Special Features (2014) and Reality Models (2016) which are discussed below will be on view in the two exhibition chapters of Gemini.
Andrew Norman Wilson: I just read Shakespeare’s Memory by Jorge Luis Borges. Basically, Hermann Sörgel, a Shakespeare devotee is offered the memory of Shakespeare from a man who received it from another man, and so on. These men all lead rather bland lives, so the idea of acquiring Shakespeare’s memory seems compelling – frightening, even. As this foreign memory gradually overwhelms Sörgel’s own, he begins to realize that Shakespeare’s memories were just as banal as any other human’s: »Chance, or fate, dealt Shakespeare those trivial terrible things that all men know; it was his gift to be able to transmute them into fables, into characters that were much more alive than the gray man who dreamed them, into verses which will never be abandoned, into verbal music.« While Borges seems to be questioning the extent to which an author can be in the work, he also seems to be undermining the singularity of experience and memory. Not quite a universality, but a non-singularity. Maybe this is why Shakespeare had such an impact – he was able to hone in on how all human experience is connected at some level.
Do you feel like Special Features came from somewhere beyond you – James N. Kienitz Wilkins?
»Memory is like the subjective husk of reality, since what is graspable now isn’t necessarily graspable later.«James N. Kienitz Wilkins
James N. Kienitz Wilkins: Special Features came much more from within me than earlier works, which is why it spawned a quick procession of follow-up projects by demonstrating to myself that I had a ready repository of material. But as I’ve become less concerned about the consequences of »putting myself out there,« I think the within has become the beyond: looking at myself or my thoughts objectively. Or assessing the reality of myself in the sense of the my self as material; a thing; something that can be possessed like property; experienced by another. It’s interesting that Borges’s men would want Shakespeare’s memory. I can’t imagine that someone else’s memory would get you any closer to their reality. I guess that’s the point. Memory is like the subjective husk of reality, since what is graspable now isn’t necessarily graspable later. The title of your movie loop really sums up the conundrum: Reality Models. It strikes me more and more that our reality is only ever a model for what could be if Time weren’t an instant ravager, distorting reality into soupy memory, like a game of telephone or a degrading fragment on videotape. I think your piece in particular evokes this contradiction on a certain emotional gut-level… maybe an unsettling nostalgia, or even creepier, a jamais vu (a constant feeling like you’re seeing something for the first time when you know you’ve seen it before). Would you agree?
ANW: I think there’s a spectrum of attitudes one can have towards existence. Nostalgia is a bit easy, a cheap comfort that hides greater complexity. Somewhere beyond that lies nihilism, which is a bit more difficult to face but too sure of itself. Neither feel that generative to me as ways of thinking and feeling, both within artworks and the span of a day. Ultimately I think there’s an inherent strangeness to existence because everything sits in a generalized uncanny valley that’s populated by much more than just lifelike robots. Everything is not quite as it appears. The jamais vu you speak of sits well here.
There are experiences we have, especially as children, that exceed any rationale or model and can’t be fully consumed and digested. At their extremes these experiences inflict trauma, and remain with us like a haunted presence. There’s no getting past certain pasts. Puppets and clowns are classic figures of the creepy, but what really drew me back to the Peppermint Park scarecrow puppet dance sequence was how this belligerent performance erupted without explanation between two unrelated educational segments of the show.
So I developed a three layered approach of looping, speculative models – motivated by something similar to the objective self-analysis you mentioned – and tried to weave the layers together as tightly as possible to generate the synchronous path of the looping models. On the surface there’s the public figure of an artist performing on stage and then confronting its private self. Hidden below that there’s a very literal lit-crit layer that determined the strawman would function as a literary strawman, the red herring as a red herring, and the loose ends of the wires after the puppet(s) explode(s) would function as loose ends (with narrative hooks). Even the fridge participates in a fridge logic – how is it on the stage at the beginning of the dance sequence, or is that still backstage? But then how does the hungry puppet walk around to backstage after dancing?
»Like the feeling that you’re a stranger to yourself, and that anything you come across is a sort of disturbing puppet that differs from itself in that its phenomena are not entirely ›it.‹«
The most hermetic model for composing the loop came first while reading about a discovery in quantum physics in which the physicist Aaron O’Connell proved that an object visible to the naked human eye can both oscillate and not oscillate at the same time. Objects can be in two places at once. This inverts a lot of modern thought in which existing means being consistent while ceasing to exist means being inconsistent. Or that classical logic – where things are either A or B, but never A and B at the same time – is being replaced by a quantum logic which says that all future possibilities exist in the present. This third layer has a formal relationship to the other two more relatable narrative layers: an entity moving towards death in quantum logic could be said to parallel the narrative convention of moving towards closure in cinema and literature. The frequency and duration of the action on the screen (plot) synchronises ever more tightly with the action in the chronological sequence of events (story). Plot and story arrive at a 1:1 ratio, a consistency. But then the puppet(s) reanimate(s) and it happens all over again.
These three models aren’t required reading – they’re just machines that guided me towards the more gut level feelings you speak of. Like the feeling that you’re a stranger to yourself, and that anything you come across is a sort of disturbing puppet that differs from itself in that its phenomena are not entirely »it.« Maybe it’s even appropriate to say that subjectivity as a whole is the husk of reality.
This relates to one of the things I love about the works from the Andre trilogy. I’m confronted with lossy translations, performative rhetoric, theories, and my own cognitive management of all the details. You cheat on documentary form, hiring three different people to describe an experience that ends up just being a dream you had. Or an anonymous, hooded interview figure is actually a stock image that could have been or could be used in countless productions aside from yours. As a viewer I never feel like I arrive at essential identities or truths. When we went on that hike a few months ago you said »everyone has theories!« and I feel like if you made merch for the trilogy, there could be a t-shirt that carries that slogan. Do you feel like your work pushes towards a togetherness, or at least a connectedness as mentioned before, through its estrangement from truth, sincerity, and identity?
»I’ve found that my attitude towards sincerity disturbs some people. But I wholly believe it’s not my responsibility to demonstrate through my movies that I’m sincere. I’ve made a movie, haven’t I?«James N. Kienitz Wilkins
JNKW: That quantum physics discovery was dubbed »spooky action at a distance«, right? My friend Eugene first told me about it, and it struck me as an excellent way to describe personal memories – how we think we are living our lives, but our »true« lives run in parallel in the foggy, mutable black hole of memory.
You know, your breakdown of Reality Models is pretty fascinating because of how literal it is. I hadn’t fully grasped how it is exactly what it is: a herring, a fridge, a straw maw, loose ends. It’s funny that this extremely literally reading comes out of a density of non-required readings, cited to me now by you, as well as included as a long text in the video’s description, which is a tactic you employ with most of your works. I interpret this as you laying bare the processes by which you got to the synthesized form that is the movie. I’m relieved that you say the readings aren’t mandatory. I’m not relieved because I’m lazy, I just think it’s important to acknowledge there is a difference between theorizing and doing, or more dumbly, being interested in a bunch of stuff and making something other people have to deal with. I guess that’s what I meant about »everyone has theories.« Everyone’s looks for meaning in this life. Everyone thinks they’re an artist until proven otherwise. Everyone can talk a bunch of shit. But all that really matters are the leftover breadcrumbs, you know? And if you can’t see a breadcrumb for what it is (a breadcrumb), then you’re not only lost, you’re gonna be very hungry.
Keeping to the literal, a very surface-level connection between our two works is the idea of the puppet. Some master force pulling the strings. In the case of Special Features, this is very directly expressed through three actors who must say what they’re fed. Their statements and affect and gestures are beyond right or wrong. You can’t judge their sincerity because the whole question is moot. I’ve found that my attitude towards sincerity disturbs some people. But I wholly believe it’s not my responsibility to demonstrate through my movies that I’m sincere. I’ve made a movie, haven’t I? It’s a lot more engaging than some theory about sincerity. And I think the characters within (most of) my movies literally talk about this pressure, which could be some of the togetherness you speak of.
I don’t know. What do you think about sincerity? You brought it up! Do you feel moving images have to do something? And when considering a loop, can something be done again or again or is the purpose lost? Like someone being really sincere over and over again: doesn’t that just mean they’re a sociopath?
»Perhaps sincerity is a coping mechanism, a comforting quilt laid over an existential rift. Try sitting on the quilt to see if it holds weight and you slip right in.«Andrew Norman Wilson
ANW: I just read about »spooky action at a distance« on Wikipedia and perhaps it’s a broad theory for which O’Connell’s discovery serves as evidence. It seems to mean that objects are literally telepathic. I like reading about science because certain ideas or observations can become toys in my head and as I play with those toys they start to determine the form of an artwork. Like the breadcrumbs you speak of – various crumbs from other people become little toys that I’m able to wrap my head around and then leave more crumbs behind. Or they’re like the tips of an iceberg, and the rest of the iceberg that I can’t see is both my own lack of knowledge about quantum mechanics, for instance, and anyone’s fundamental lack of access to what it tries to describe. Einstein himself challenged the idea that quantum mechanics offers a complete description of reality. This entails a profound ambiguity and I suppose this is why I made Reality Models.
I’ve been watching a lot of Bresson lately and while he was after something different, I kind of relate to his belief that actors – indeed, acting itself – were alien to the medium of film, because the camera could detect the slightest sign of artificiality and calculation. I feel sort of blind to what, say, The Academy refers to as »good acting.« And I struggle with movies and even people who emphasize »sincerity.« They seem to gloss over the trickster qualities of reality itself that people like Einstein so aptly described. Perhaps sincerity is a coping mechanism, a comforting quilt laid over an existential rift. Try sitting on the quilt to see if it holds weight and you slip right in.
I live in Tinseltown and when people ask me what my sign is I say »STOP.« My refrigerator literally produces a stronger magnetic field in my house than Jupiter does, and I think that any systematic irrationalism that’s insistent on determining that things are well defined and exactly what they are all the way down are, well, patriarchal for one. Did you know Hitler and the Reagans relied on astrology?
»I have no clue why anything exists but because things seem to exist it feels like developing our understanding of the universe is a worthwhile pursuit. Art doesn’t have to do anything for anyone, it succeeds when it just exists as an overwhelming givenness.«Andrew Norman Wilson
I have no clue why anything exists but because things seem to exist it feels like developing our understanding of the universe is a worthwhile pursuit. Art doesn’t have to do anything for anyone, it succeeds when it just exists as an overwhelming givenness. It makes us more intelligent, and that intelligence exceeds the intellect. There are certain fields that produce certain tools for certain purposes, but I think art loses its status as art when it gets »tooled.« It can use tools to create opportunities to think about tools, or it breaks tools, or it untools tools. For instance in Special Features, you’re using a bunch of documentary tools in a way that actually makes me question the tools themselves. I’m obsessed with what seems to be diegetic T-Pain in the video. A car playing his track Up Down (Do This All Day) contributes to a break in the storytelling that had started with an adjustment of three point lighting. From here the interview subject starts to question the interviewee. The song fades but returns at the end of the video and becomes the closing song over the credit roll. Retroactively, the first time it plays it seems like the point is to make us believe that the T-Pain interruption happened. The second time it seems like the point is to produce skepticism. Together they produce an ambiguity over whether it happened once, twice, or not at all. Because I have the opportunity to ask – which one was it? And why do you play with us like that?
JNKW: Yes, my entire knowledge about quantum mechanics is definitely limited to a half page on Wikipedia. I wonder if there is a third position: a node distinct from systematic irrationalism, yet distinct, too, from rational and thorough scientific knowledge… where guys like us reside. Would this be the Cloud?
Anyway, it’s funny you bring up astrology. I just found out both my new daughter and I are Scorpio Risings, which can only mean one thing: we’ll be watching a lot of Kenneth Anger together.
»You can’t say you yourself are sincere without sounding insincere.«James N. Kienitz Wilkins
I also feel uneasy with displays of sincerity. Like when someone tells you they are a »nice guy« or an »empathetic person«, it’s like, RUN! (or STOP ?) Sincerity is a judgment. You can’t say you yourself are sincere without sounding insincere. So a desire for sincerity in art strikes me as a desire to judge what an author is doing: usually from a patronizing position. It’s a way of containing the art and the artist. Sincerity has nothing to do with truth. It’s just a palliative. I know I’m not being insincere as much as I’m not being sincere. Neither concern me.
To your question about the shifting music in Special Features, I agree it’s a form of play. But more importantly, I really do believe things can be many things at once (to loop back to the original discussion), and as you say: once, twice, or not at all. To me, it’s all three, like alternate universes we are privileged to see at once. From a production standpoint, the music was added, but of course the location presented the very real problem (loud cars passing) the script accepts and expands upon. Similar to your literalism in Reality Models, I found the term »three-point lighting« very provocative: like, what’s the point? The point is usually to illuminate a fixed subject. But what if three-point lighting had three of its own distinct points to make? Like the point is not the point, which oddly frees any one point to be a legitimate point, at least for a moment. The pointy tip of the iceberg? Maybe this thinking is residual Harry Nilsson early exposure, but there’s definitely something to it for me. I know it reflects in my distrust or distaste for depictions of single primary characters whose emotional experiences are unquestionably followed in typical movies. I’ve become much more interested in the ensemble… even when it appears that a single entity is running the show. I dare say this even applies to monologue-based work. The cheesy teenager way of putting this would be the »voices in my head«, perhaps like the subtitles in Reality Models which I’m curious about… how did you come to subtitles? Actually asking us to read the piece…
ANW: On a pragmatic level I knew voiceover wouldn’t feel right because I was dealing with a strawman puppet and there was no sign of a throat hole through which throaty sounds could emerge. So I started messing around with files from TV sound effect libraries, and on those close shots of the puppet’s face it seemed like the door creaks could be emanating from a joint or hidden hole somewhere in its body.
»The subject is cellular. It splits from 1 to 2.«Andrew Norman Wilson
But to function as a literary strawman and make that argument about being inside or outside, the puppet has to use language. So I arrived in the subtitle window of Adobe Premiere – a place that I love. The interplay between an image of a face and invented speech (as text) always feels really ripe. I think this is one of the reasons why memes are so powerful – they can rapidly allow you to identify with the first, second, or third person perspective of the meme, but also none of those, and still resonate through an affective acknowledgement that those perspectives exist.
Subtitles also reveal expressions to be constructions, and embody the fact that we can only comprehend sensual translations of other things. So every encounter between any two things ends up producing caricatures of the other party for each party – a process of mutual adaptation that can never be fully trusted. In Reality Models the subtitles function like the visible puppet strings – they literally refer to an author. Attached to someone, typed by someone. I made it, but what does it actually say about me, my life, my experiences? Is that even the point? I think this relates to what I was talking about earlier – being a stranger even to oneself. The pointy tip of the iceberg melts and becomes one with its environment. I think of it less like collage, and more like a sculpture or theater composed of found elements. Or music, with its tendency towards multiple voices: multiple subjects. The subject is cellular. It splits from 1 to 2. What’s the point? I hear one of James’ characters answering: the points of view.