Once It Started It Could Not End: Cut-Ups and Collage by Sears, Cox, Kennedy & Rosentrater

Friday, Nov. 18 at 7:30pm; Artists’ Television Access; 992 Valencia Street in San Francisco

more info here / advance tickets here

Archive in the Sky

by Craig Baldwin

It is heartening to know that SF Cinematheque has so risen above (an operant metaphor in this post) what we now recognize as tempests in teapots over exhibition formats, and is now placing itself at the very leading edge (of a cloud?) of contemporary, yes LIVING cinema as we like to call it. This vote of confidence in “new” media in fact arrives, in a marvelously complex but not really paradoxical way with a long reach into the collective image-bank of the past! This “retrieval” function—plus enhanced post-production facility, as we all know—comes with an aggressive exploitation of the ways and means of the electronic encyclopedia, and these digital avenues are just as amenable to the fantasy-world-building of visionary artists, tale-spinners, cranks and crackpots as they are to academic researchers and archivists.

The selection of works on Cinematheque’s Cut-Ups and Collage program unabashedly demonstrates an almost salacious promiscuity regarding media supports—and sources—blithely leaving behind any frets about “purity” (as if we could afford the luxury of that argument) in its 3- (make that 99-) stage trajectory towards and through a star-cloud I’ll call, again apparently paradoxically, “Matters of the Mind.” Password is “Collective Memory.”

The screening’s tag-line “Once It Started It Could Not End” tips us to this endlessly networked rhizome of fact, fantasy, history, narrative, speculation and, penultimately… paranoia. The four artists on the bill—Kelly Sears, David Cox (both in person!!), Gideon Kennedy and Marcus Rosentrater—all deploy truly stupendous palettes of compositional moves, arrays of creative skills and technical agencies way beyond that of Chief Agent of Expression—tho that’s in there too—instead, multi-tasking in multiple modes in and out of that Great Archive of the 20th Century—Explorer, Excavator, Editor, Aesthete and Architect of Emplotment (to use J. Skoller’s apt term)—to cobble together Exquisite Corpses from Your Back Pages of the popular press and already-quaint “broadcast regime.”

Flying in from her Research HQ in Houston where she’s been based after earlier SoCal stints, Kelly Sears deserves the kind of welcome that the Bay Area would usually reserve for a festival-style Prometheus. But by releasing her superbly smart shorts one by one, year in and year out, she never until now achieved a critical mass for a larger exhibition block of her work. That would so powerfully demonstrate an oeuvre solid enough to merit monograph status… please consider this a modest first step towards that.

Witty, savvy, ironic, poetic, exhilarating, even cosmic—and lovely to look at to boot—Sears’ works afford the viewer a sort of wormhole into a parallel universe… made entirely of things we nonetheless recognize. This is the uncanny principle that Ms. Sears so unerringly parlays, rendering collage-animation singularities out of institutional media.

Something is wrong with these pictures, things are not what they seem, appearances are mere cover-ups for the real power plays behind the panels.

In her Voice on the Line (2009), Sears seduces us into a candy-colored post-War zone somewhere between Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Richard Prince and John Baldessari for a deliciously designed Technicolor speculation, an Eisenhower-era postcard that slyly backs us into the beginnings of our now-ubiquitous surveillance society. The political critique remains at the level of the most delirious allegory, and, like the sorry dupes in the tale itself, we are powerless to resist the nigh-on nostalgic pleasures of this puppet-peopled Pop composite.

Approaching a 1974 high-school yearbook like it was an irradiated artifact from a military-industrial A-test, Sears works her forensic magic again in Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise. Through Sears’ masterful collage/compositing/animation, the banal imagery is centrifuged for its most toxic content, and the noxious precipitate is perversely turned to truly chilling effect. Again, the spectres of American alienation lurk behind every half-tone dot (and there are a lot of them), and the bigger picture resolves into a “bummer, dude” waking nightmare of the national dream in slo-mo collapse.

Moire, noise and digital “dirt” are on their relentless march over the empty promises of Time-Life’s Benday dots in Sears’ He Hates to Be Second (2008). Once more her evident aptitude for graphic gesture and industrial-audio design are consummated in a scathing critique of the 20th Century Organization Man, and its chief executive embodiment in the form of a Kennedy. Sears here reminds us that all we can know is through the gaps in the redacted text, which was a heap of lies in the first place.

In The Body Besieged (2009), she turns her attention to women’s bodies, here as flat found-image marionettes on harshly stylized backgrounds—anxiety-producing territory commercial designers would not dare to tread. Playful but dangerously op-energized, this wordless work contains the proof of her media-centric stance… that in fact literacy and fluency in the idioms of mass-media A/V can, even without ‘normal’ language, be redeemed in sociopolitical commentary… in this case the dictation of the female form by the flattening mandate of advertising/industrial design.

But back to our pulsar-cloud of Possible Worlds: as electromagnetically attractive as Sears’ cluster of Dark Matters presents itself to us, its Aesthetic of Secrecy—a “digital occult?”—is here mirrored by Gideon KENNEDY (ah, you think that’s a coincidence?) and Marcus Rosentrater’s Clandestine (2009), an ecstatically obsessive and meticulous meditation on global espionage networks. Cannily seizing on the no-longer-underground mystique of the Conet “Numbers Stations”—disembodied-voice recordings that constitute the most sublime audio artifacts of the post-War analog-spy period—this half-hour masterwork almost automatically conjures up conspiracies out of the rich real-world artifactuality (my neologism), towards a meta-political meta-narrative that marvelously hybridizes investigative journalism, genre story-telling, experimental sound, and a whole lot of other rhetorical modes, into a sort of rhizomic cinema that has as much to do with the Archive as with the Eye. Here’s to a future hyperlinked version!

The Third part of this media cut-up program is in fact informed by co-author of the The Third Mind himself (and also star of The Cut-Ups for that matter)—William S. Burroughs, as channeled by our own local mix-master David Cox. Mr. Cox, director of Otherzone (1998) and dozens of other short collage movies, is throwing down his own challenge to the space-time continuum with his Time Ghost (2010), an unapologetic assemblage of found material—fictional and non—that is dialectically synthesized into a larger, formalized critique of the Spectacle. Cox accelerates the simultaneously centripetal and centrifugal forces that characterize the program as a whole through crafty selection, positioning, and narrativization—a fearless re-mobilization of those phantoms of the horrible past into a digital-video puppet-show, in an argument against the so much more horrible present.

—Craig Baldwin, November 2011


Kelly Sears: Voice on the Line; The Body Besieged; He Hates to Be Second; The Drift; Once It Started It Could Not End Otherwise; Imprinted; The Believers; Cover Me Alpha // David Cox: Time Ghost // Gideon Kennedy and Marcus Rosentrater: Clandestine