g The Film Panel Notetaker: UnionDocs Presents Inductive Thread at MoMA's Documentary Fortnight

Friday, March 05, 2010

UnionDocs Presents Inductive Thread at MoMA's Documentary Fortnight

UnionDocs Presents Inductive Thread
February 20, 2010
New York, NY

As a viewer of documentary film in the cinematic sense, I was deeply challenged, yet profoundly informed by a strange, yet entertaining two-part experimental nonfiction film and essay production called “Inductive Thread,” presented by Brooklyn nonprofit UnionDocs during MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight. Inductive Thread combined short works that engaged multiple subjects and diverse aesthetic approaches to documentary arts. The key to this performance was “collaboration.” While each piece was directed by one or two people, it was the group of collaborators as a whole who nurtured each project from beginning to end, and each project was thread together to create one performance as a whole, hence its title, “Inductive Thread.”

The first part touched on the history of UnionDocs, its rotating body of participants, and their collaborative exploration of topics as diverse as the death of payphones and the popularity of currywurst. The second part was an investigation of myth in contemporary society. The excerpt from a larger ongoing project shared many inspirations, including the experimental laboratory of the Bauhaus and the collection of short but revelatory essays within Roland Barthes' classic 1957 text Mythologies.

Participating in the presentation were UnionDocs founders Christopher Allen, Executive Director; Jesse Shapins, Kara Oehler, and Johanna Linsley; along UnionDocs programmer, Steve Holmgren, and several other UnionDocs Collaborative participants. The following are highlights from the presentation.

Inductive Thread Part 1 – Presentation About UnionDocs

MoMA Film’s Sally Berger introduced the presentation bringing out Allen, who went over some background of UnionDocs, and Linsley, who described what would be taking place in both parts of the program. UnionDocs’ mission is to present a broad range of innovative and thought-provoking nonfiction projects to the general public while cultivating specialized opportunities in learning and critical discourse. It also creates collaboration for media makers and curators. The organization uses a broad definition of the word “documentary” taking an interdisciplinary approach encouraging the production of film, video, radio, written essay, photography, Internet and more. Linsley said they’ve had a big question as how to acknowledge the individual in group practices.  They settled on the word 'collaborative' instead to describe their activities, after trying out 'collective,' which felt wrong, like visions of a faceless mass.

The film presentation began with a very clever and funny mockumentary of sorts about UnionDocs titled “Time Capsule,” in which a time capsule is found in their building, which is actually a vacuum cleaner that apparently has never been changed in its five-year history. The vacuum bag is removed and dissected, revealing its unappealing contents made mostly of dried-up hair, dust, and other peculiar objects. A long piece of string that’s intertwined with the rest of the bag’s contents symbolizes the “Inductive Thread.”

Allen and Linsley continued by dividing the rest of Part 1 of the program into three parts (short videos were interspersed with each of the three parts) and I’ve provided a brief summation of each below:

1)   Assumptions:
a.     It’s useful for curious and concerned friends and collaborators to gather to watch documentaries on a Sunday night, it is more interesting if it is open to the public.
b.     Documentaries should be approached critically and the truths they claim should be questioned and debated.
c.      Merely watching, listening and discussing might not be enough to satisfy the curiosity and concern, the foundation for the endeavor. The consumption of the stories must be matched by creative work in order to be more fully digested, and presenting should be matched by processing, usefully blurring the line between creators and their audience.
2)   Associations:
For this, UnionDocs made a series of projects with payphones for the Conflux festival in 2006. They were interested in using this to think about the public, private, and possibly occult implications of living in the city.  UnionDocs also has a “living component” in that it has a lease on its whole building. Allen said he’s left the living aspect out of the conversation until now, because of the associations it comes with. “UnionDocs is not and has never been a commune, the set of a reality TV show, or worse, an experimental documentary frat house,” he said. Instead, UnionDocs a refuge from New York City’s distractions, an epicenter of activity for people who work days, have busy lives, and who can get things done and have a sense of continuity in their experience, if they are given the space.
3)   Renovations:
A better understanding of collaboration prompted the restructuring of UnionDocs and brought it closer to how it exists today.
a.     Process:
Collaboration requires openness to chance, structured communication, clearly defined separation of roles, dialogue and reflection, trust in your collaborators’ opinion and confidence in critique. Making lots of little inter-related pieces in a group creates a growing, somewhat unruly database of media that when brought together might make interesting results, such as their 20 hour-long radio shows for WKCR 89.9 FMNY. 
b.     Problems:
Collaboration is frustrating. You can't always get what you want, but sometimes you spend more time on process and get less product. You need lots of structure and considerable time for dialogue and discussion. There’s the risk of individuals’ ideas being exploited by others under the cover of collaboration, which can devolve in marketing language. Personal motivations must also be examined. Working in a group can sometimes be a way to hide from oneself.
c.      Benefits
                                               i.     Unexpected results.
                                              ii.     Valuable resources
                                            iii.     Inter-subjectivity

To conclude Part 1, UnionDocs Programmer Steve Holmgren held a dialogue with Allen about the state of funding for the organization, and how last year at this time, they had none, but with the help of an emergency grant from the Experimental Television Center, Allen used what money they received to work with a consultant rethinking how the organization might work. Out of that came the UnionDocs Collaborative Program – a one to two-year program for emerging media producers, theorists, and curators. Holmgren continued to explain the program with clips of more short videos interspersed.

Inductive Thread Part 2 – “Documenting Mythologies”

For Part 2 of Inductive Thread, “Documenting Mythologies,” audio of people talking and other ambient sounds transitioned from one pair of speakers to the next. Collaborative project directors Jesse Shapins and Kara Oehler introduced Part 2 saying that the collaborative is documenting mythology in contemporary society. A dialogue between continued where they deconstructed the meaning of myth in relation to documentaries. Myth is usually thought to be fiction. Documentaries are concerned with facts. This paradox might be what attracts us to the idea of trying to document mythology. The rhetorical question was asked, “Haven't mythologies been documented for centuries?” Homer could be considered a classic documentarian. He gathered the oral traditions of the Greeks and consolidated them into fixed narratives. But that’s not the only way to define mythology. French author Roland Barthes was given as an example. In his book Mythologies, he talks about myth in a different way.

Quotes from Barthes’ book followed such as, "I was at the time (between 1954 and 1956) trying to reflect regularly on some myths of French daily life. The starting point of these reflections was usually a feeling of frustration at the sight of the 'naturalness' with which newspapers, art and common sense constantly dress up reality. In short, I resented seeing Nature and History confused at every turn, and I wanted to track down, in the constant display of what-goes-without-saying, the ideological abuse which…in my view…is hidden there. Right from the start, the notion of myth seemed to me to explain these examples of the falsely obvious."

Barthes’ book is made up of short, surprising essays on topics you would have never considered thinking about as mythologies, as evidenced in the index with such topics as “The World of Wrestling,” “Operation Margarine,” “Toys,” “Wine,” Milk,” “Steak,” Chips,” “Plastic,” and more. Linsley said that “Plastic” was one of her favorite essays. Barthes gathered these topics by wandering through the streets of Paris. The book has the character of an author exploring the city with a heightened awareness. Paying attention to everything. Looking for new meanings in overlooked details of everyday life.

Next to present were Joshua Gen Solondz and Jolene Pinder, who were asked, “What is the form of myth?” Going back and forth, they asked “Fact or Myth?” showing a series of slides on screen such as:

[Slide of Kitten + fountain]
Fact or Myth?
Adding a water element to your home adds circulation and flow.

[Slide of Wedding fountain]
Fact or Myth?
Miniature fountains rank 7 out of 10 on a list of most popular wedding presents.

This was followed by their short documentary, “Little Fountains.”

The next presenter was Tina Antolini, who was asked, “Do you know how language is created?” Tina said that language, at its root, is composed of sound. Noise that we channel into symbols—letters we string them together to communicate with one another. How did a mouthful of syllables come to add up to a word? – And who’s responsible when that meaning shifts? As babies, we learn our first words. “Mother” gets a woman, a feeling attached to it. For most of our lives, it retains much of the definition  it had when we first pinned it to the woman who birthed us, fed us, cared for us. But other words assume new meanings—and come into them mysteriously. How did “dog”—once purely canine—become associated with a buddy or friend in certain circles? Or “awesome”—once reserved for qualities inspiring amazement—how has it come to imply a more general, even casual goodness? [Audio of the famous line “Whatever!” from the movie “Clueless” sounds]. Tina goes into the many associations of the word, “whatever.” Anything that sounds slangy will be associated with teenagers or street gangs or drug users, and especially things that are felt to be around the early to mid 1980s, they’ll say, people will say this is from Valley Girl talk. She also refers to the popular slang from Wayne’s World, “Not!”

Katia Maguire and Ben Brown are next asked, “Why do we believe in cause and effect?” With slides of political figures interspersed throughout, they said that cause and effect is something that even a country as great as ours cannot evade.  A thorough understanding of our nation’s rich history has proved this to us.  Our forefathers knew this, and put this into our country’s greatest document, the Constitution. However, we have to change the tone in Washington.  The political gridlock needs to be broken. No one likes to sit in traffic all day.  No one likes to hear that their Congressmen are squandering their hard earned tax dollars with partisan squabbles and petty arguments. Our children’s future is at stake.  Let me tell you a story about a little girl I met in our country’s heartland.  Her father off at war, her mother working two jobs to keep her home from being foreclosed and paying her skyrocketing health insurance bills.  We cannot have any child left behind. We all make mistakes.  I’m only human, and I never said I was perfect.  I knew that this would be a hard road to travel, and at times, we may veer off the path, but it’s time to move forward.  It’s time to move on as a nation.  We must let this healing process begin.  I’ve journeyed into the heartland of America, and I’ve spoken with real Americans, who all say the same thing.  We need real change.  But we also need to stick with our ideals, and our values as a nation.  What we need is a leader bold enough, brave enough, with the courage to reach out, to touch the third rail, and to once and for all really deal with the challenging and critical issues of our time.  

This is followed by the short video, “3rd Rail,” which shows the view from inside the front subway car looking out onto the dark subway tracks with bright, distorted lights illuminating the way.

Will Martin and Andres Almeida are next asked, “What sustains the myth that man is separate from nature?” They take photographs of the audience. A trumpet player is heard from in back of the audience.

Shawn Wen and Hyatt Michael are next asked, “Does this mean all of our motivations are aesthetic?” A slide of the color “red” is shown. They say that red is just light.  Red is light with wavelengths measuring 630 to 740 nanometers. Eve offered Adam red fruit.  Together, they sinned.  As her punishment, God decreed that she would bleed red. Oxygenated blood is red because of the presence of oxygenated hemoglobin. Red is the color of anger and passion, love and pain.  The red-blooded young man, Cain, was caught red-handed spilling the blood of his brother Abel. If the wavelength were any longer, light could not be seen by the naked eye.  Hence, infrared. Red stirs the blood.  Hester Prynne sewed the red letter A onto her breast as a symbol of her illicit love.  Red radiates at 480 to 405 teraherz. Red stop lights and red stop signs. Red warnings and red fire hydrants.  Red inflames the bull’s temper.  Red cars tend to get into more accidents.  The beaches of Normandy were stained red by soldiers' blood. Red is a primary color.

This is followed by the short video, “Hair is Alive,” which shows various strands of hair in water, doing funky wiggle waggles.

Robbie Wilkins and Rahul Chadha are next asked, “What myths are hidden within friendship? They ask each other a series of questions such as, “how many co-workers have you ever worked with in your entire life?” “How many relatives do you have?” If you take everyone of these people or connections, “what would you tell them about yourself?”

Audience Q and A

Allen, Linsley, Holmgren and all the other participants totaling 16 people, went on stage and sat on UnionDocs’ signature red-cushioned benches to take questions from the audience.

One question was, how much was the final product originally conceived as a multi-chapter performance? Allen said when everyone came on board last September; the intention was to create a collaborative project. They knew it would take some kind of form, just not exactly what. It would be a combination of individually produced works. They created a structure that collaborators responded to and were given assignments that went into a lot of different directions. They matched everyone up with a partner and gave them two or three myths, which they presented to the group, and the group voted which myth they thought was most interesting. There was always a sense that there would be some structure weaving the pieces together with a certain thematic conceptual framework. Later on in the Q and A, someone else on stage said that there was always a consistency in tone as the pieces evolved over the months they workshoped them together. Allen added that as a group and an organization, they have a deep interest in nonfiction, but they also have a lot of doubt about its ability to transmit reality or truth.

And how does the collaboration experience now shape their future work as individuals? Making work is a process; a lot of hours go into it, one of the young ladies on stage answered. It’s pushing something until you’re nauseous. Having one person to share that burden 12 other people to let some air into it, it helps a lot…to allow people to put their fingerprints on it. Another lad on stage added that even if you’re working by yourself, you’re influences by other people’s work, which is a kind of collaboration, too.

One woman in the audience said she was intrigued by the fact that they used Roland Barthes’ work as a departure point. How did the engagement of his work evolve over time as they were making these documentaries? Secondly, she asked if Chris could elaborate on UnionDocs’ doubt of nonfiction conveying reality. One gentleman on the panel said he found at the beginning the reading to be very inaccessible and frustrating. It was open to interpretation, and everyone had a different entry point to their pieces based on their understanding or frustration of the reading as an exercise. Another person added that in choosing Barthes, they felt there was something unique and particular about the ambiguity of all of his writings. It wasn’t a didactic theoretical text, it was something you could come back to again and again and always discover new layers. Essays as a genre are short pieces that allow themselves to open up. For the second question about their doubt of nonfiction conveying reality, Allen said it’s a combination of presenting work and having Q and As with filmmakers in the space, people getting the details of their representation, and trying to study this person that is the documentary filmmaker from a presenting point of view.

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