Johannes DeYoung, Founding Editor, Lookie-Lookie
Johannes DeYoung: In recent years, you’ve been living in Amsterdam and Portugal, making work that engages state-side cultural themes. Since we last saw each other, the political climate in the US has grown especially mercurial and I wonder how this translates for you.
Martha Colburn: In the past three years I moved from Amsterdam, to Berlin, to Portugal, to Amsterdam. In between there I went to Denmark, Norway, Madeira Island and Belgium. I’ve felt the fear building in Europe the last three years and now more fear. It affects everyone. I mean I feel that - it comes out in my work, it has a sort of feverish quality.
JD: Can you talk about the iconography in your work? There are times when the figures you depict resemble contemporary media archetypes — cops, cowboys, religious icons — and there are other times when the figures transform into more imaginative bodies, all filtered thru a haptic, painterly sensibility.
MC: The characters in my films, sometimes they are from my past- almost like autobiographical characters, like the guys I used to shoot at moving cars with in Pennsylvania, or the neighbor that robbed our house, or the pimps on my street corner. Sometimes they are these iconographic characters that are just representations of a character that come out of historical paintings. I like seeing them all moving in the same landscape or house, like history collapsed or a compression of time is being played out. It delights me while I am making the films.
JD: The forms are slippery. As a viewer, I find that incredibly satisfying because there’s a sustained element of surprise and an associative logic that's loose and experiential. It’s easy to slip between history painting and contemporary subject matter, but even therein the representations fracture and dissolve into total abstraction. The work has as much to do with sensation as it does with representation. How do you approach the abstract, experiential moments in the work? I imagine that even the most frenetic abstractions take a considerable amount of time to find or design.
MC: I guess I make abstraction by default as part of my film language I developed, just through experimentation. I never limited myself to storytelling, or a linear progression of plots. In my early films I did a lot of hand scratching and cutting of film and there the surface is really the emphasis; the cutting of the film image or illusion. Abstraction in my animated films enters my films as a resolution to a character, for instance falling to pieces or becoming another form. Images also break into abstraction as a way to speak about the subject; like a soldier crumbling into the shape of a puzzle; a car becoming a series of abstract shapes.
JD: I know in the past you’ve shown your work with live musical performance. Is that still part of your practice?
MC: I did that in a concentrated manner for ten years from 2002- 2012. I’ve performed my films to techno, electro, hard, soft and math rock, orchestras, ensembles and improvisational groups, noise, drone and pop music. Now I return to my roots of American primitive guitar, banjo, tambourine or fiddle. My sister is playing banjo on my next film and a new Portuguese collaborator-Rita Braga- playing banjolele on another and a collaborator in Belgium is playing a Clavichord for a new film.
JD: Oskar Fischinger remarked about the structural relationship between sound and image in film, wherein sound comprises the internal structure and image comprises the external. The relationship between sound and image is especially charged in your work - I’m thinking specifically of the drums and lush quintet in Myth Labs, or the more starkly isolated singer's voice in Destiny Manifesto. I’m really curious to know how you approach the relationship between image and sound in your films; it seems there are many strategies at play.
MC: Some of it is strategy, for instance assembling the musicians together, but for the most part I let go of the reins and let the soundtracks develop mostly in the hands of the musicians. I’m making a ‘Fake News’ film for a record release, Zicmuse Mc Cloud is composing a piece for a Clavicord in Belgium right now, and I just used a banjo song by my sister Amy for a new film. I have a vision for the direction I will take ‘musically’ in my films for a year or so ahead and always want to see a new dynamic of image and sound. My interest now is towards solo acoustic musicians, American folk music, Native music, Jazz and Blues.
JD: What about visual rhythm? How do you think about that?
MC: The visual rhythm emerges out of the subject matter and the cultural atmosphere I am living in. In Baltimore the rhythm was quick cuts and frantic transitions, a kind of spastic energy – ‘if you blink you miss it’. When I moved to Amsterdam my films became more orderly and when back stateside- again more desperate and urgent. When the topic is about war, my films have a fractured and nervous rhythm.
JD: I’m interested in the ways the work engages certain industrialized cinematic conventions. There are aspects of your work that challenge filmic structures and narrative tropes — yet the work is critically engaged with the very same tropes. For instance, your early works were made on found film stock and performed in a manner akin to pre-industrial silent films, featuring live musical accompaniment. In the early works, you painted directly onto film; there are times when the filmic sense of the work slips away entirely, and the work feels more like kinetic painting, or flicker film. How do you think about moving-image and its various histories?
MC: When I started making films, I was watching Industrial films from the 1940’s - 1970’s and the early Avant-Garde of filmmakers like the films Emile Cohl, Rene Clair, Hans Richter, Marcel Duchamp, Germaine Dulac, Man Ray and Jean Cocteau. I was making pre-industrial films out of industrial films, making found footage films. I was basically a Cottage Industry. I had no industrial or institutional support. I was working industrial jobs; Christmas tree assembly line, traffic counter, tableware factory, hand painted assembly line painting work, and many more. All the time spent making a hand painted film or an animation was a reaction to the factory work - where all my labors towards the goal of replication.
JD: Is it strange for you to look back on earlier works and find resonance in the current state of cultural affairs? Dolls vs. Dictators — just one example — feels especially relevant today.
MC: I made that film thinking it is a film that is always changing because as the dictators fall or die, well, the characters and the film change through time. The film was my meditation on killing them and I look forward to their demise as much as I did while making the film. It’s what motivated me . Having these now-obsolete television characters kill them seemed appropriate because they were these disembodied personalities. I took self-defense classes to prepare for making a hand-to-hand combat film.
JD: What are you working on right now?
MC: I just made a short film to advertise my Ukulele song writer friend Rita Braga’s musical tour. The film was inspired by the artist Pierre Molinier. I also just shot a film for Dutch artist Eva Pel using paintings by zoologist and amateur artist Jan Velten who painted from around 1650 -1700. I’m in the middle of a longer film using American genre painting as a basis, and mixing it with abandoned American homes, from Detroit and New Orleans. I’m moving to New Orleans for three months and working on a film that is still in the research phase, using paintings from European and American painters who painted depictions of New Orleans and the South during the reconstruction period after the Civil War.
JD: What do you hope to find in the Spirit of New Orleans?
MC: I am finding a place full of possibilities, people openly expressing their conflicts, frustrations, joys and so on. It is a place of storytelling and I am already finding that really entertaining. Musically there is a parallel story that is in the parades, the Second Line, the clubs and the street. I will go to Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Shreveport and other surrounding cities and towns… all in search of new stories and images and sounds.
Martha Colburn is an artist and filmmaker. Her films have screened in the Venice Biennelle, The Stedelijk Museum, Art Basel, Sundance Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival. She is a 2015 recipient of the Creative Capital Award for film.