By Women, For Women: An Interview with Filmmaker Lili White
By William J. Simmons on on BIG, RED & SHINY!
A graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Lili White is a fixture in the history of avant-garde filmmaking, and throughout her career she has maintained a dedication to work by women artists. As the founder of the Another Experiment by Women film festival and a board member at the Millennium Film Workshop, White has been tirelessly maintaining a forum for female filmmakers. Now, with Another Experiment by Women Online, viewers from across the world can subscribe to watch and support the artistic practices of women working in film. William J. Simmons interviewed White about her curatorial process and the history of her involvement with the intersection of art and identity politics.
I founded the Another Experiment by Women (AXW) Film Festival in 2010 after showing my work on a Manhattan Neighborhood Network community TV show—EYE:AM—curated by Victoria Kereszi, who was curating women’s films at the time. She would also present a live show in a theatre once a year at 2 Boots/Pioneer Theater, and later with New Filmmakers at Anthology Film Archives. Victoria was very committed to this and I realized seeing work by women had a different buzz. Growing up as a female with a body that is capable of giving birth to another, you’re going to have a different outlook on life. You have different issues and concerns.
I came out of painting, as did other experimental filmmakers, and I spent some time in the 1990s at Millennium Film Workshop, a nonprofit arts center and cinema where I met other filmmakers. Unfortunately, MFW has fallen on hard times due to rising rents and the depletion of grant funds. MFW gives people a place to come together at open screenings that serve as a show-and-tell of short work. Meeting other people who were interested in personal, experimental films resulted in us formulating experimental theory. These theories then migrated to universities’ curriculums. There is a community of filmmakers out there and MFW reminds us of this; there is no other place like it in the world.
In this spirit, I suggested to Vicki that we have a women’s film festival. In the autumn of 2010, I curated the first AXW film festival. 2015 will be our 4th season. I’ve always curated and when I see something that really turns me on, it feeds me; I want to show it to somebody else, and make sure others see it. I’m trying to get work out there so that it’s available. When I curate a show, I find an underlying subtext that leads from one piece to the next to the next to the next, a style many people find enjoyable and accessible.
If you’re a woman, landing a job in the film community is very difficult. AXW gives women a place to stand, presenting a more democratic platform for everyone. It may be women’s thing, because men have a way of communicating with each other that women don’t have. It seems that a lot of women have to rely on men helping them out to get their films made. People are becoming more aware of this and trying to build teams of women that will work together. When that starts to happen, there will be some kind of change in society. Some say feminism “failed” in some regard. Of course, everyone wants equal pay in the job market—everyone went for that, rather than bringing others up with them, and so now we still have “the class struggle.”
This is how I first saw films like Fellini’s—on late night TV in the suburbs.” Meeting people is extremely important in developing any kind of artistic community. There were a number of cinemas where you could rent for film screenings at a reasonable price, or show your own work, but these places have gone under. What Another Experiment by Women is doing is somewhat of a grassroots venture to address this problem. AXW is international; it is equal parts aesthetics and activism. Recently besides the live shows (all past shows are listed on axwff.com) we have films that that can be streamed online for $6. You get to see the show as many times as you want for three days. Each show has four filmmakers, and the funds from streaming purchase go to filmmakers themselves. I wanted to find women who were serious about making their work, and show it in a place where it would be screened in a comfortable, beautiful fashion, where people can meet others when they see it. But if they are not in New York City, the online site allows them to see the work. This is how I first saw films like Fellini’s—on late night TV in the suburbs.
Sometimes experimental work may seem to go quickly by—you may not fully grasp it—so to be able to see the same show over and over again makes for a new kind of viewing. We are making an archive of women’s work—of women’s thoughts, their expression. These works are now anchored in one place and available for multiple viewings. I think history is important, and to be able to access an archive gives one more material than art magazines or books coming out of academia.
In my own films, I have been concerned with the social or the psychological, such as slavery, prostitution, and the nature of being a female. All of this is filtered through experiences in the real world, like the food that we eat, and the political repercussions of something like Monsanto, or the control the oil companies have over our lives.The subject of greed runs through my recent feature film, FOOL’S GOLD: CALIFORNIA ROADTRIP IN AN ELECTION YEAR. I was wondering if I could make a film that mimicked “my stream of consciousness.”
The film includes Michael Jackson’s dancing zombies. Zombies are “consumers.” Our society is based largely on consumer love for material products and our country is rich enough to afford them. I coupled this with the story of corporate layoffs in a mining town called Trona in California and with the story of Cain and Abel, wherein one brother is out to get ahead, and after he kills his brother he goes out to form society as we know it.
These themes occurred spontaneously in my mind, and during the editing process they found connection and a way to come together. This corporate layoff in Trona took place in the 1980s, but the ramifications remain today. I wanted to make the film because I saw a shift in society at that time. I believe that now we’re undergoing another shift. We are questioning what is the nature of work, what does money really mean, what is the root of out attachment to material products, how do we incorporate them into our lives, etc. The film was designed to jar you into thinking, questioning or discussing these issues with others, more than being a mere “witness” to meeting the people interviewed in the film.
LILI WHITE Interview by ZHU DENNIS
ARTWORLD Magazine – July 2004 in coordination with her solo shows at Bejing 25000 Cultural Transmission Center, Bejing, China; and the Doulun Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai, China.
Q:Do you like to be addressed as a director of experiment movies? Or do you prefer to other titles, such as artists, which probably represent your attitude and statement towards creation better?
A:I prefer “artist” if it involves me performing in the movie; if it is a work without me and with other people in it like, TRAVELING WITH NEPTUNE, BIRTH, then I think of the term, “director”.
Q:Do you still paint now? What type of works do you paint? Do you find any relations between painting and experiment movies? Or what kind of influence does painting have on your movie works? And what about the movies to your paintings?
A:Yes, I still paint. In both my movies and paintings, I am very concerned with the composition inside the frame and the sequence of shots, (like Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN). Some of my earlier abstract paintings used calligraphic-like lines. I studied Chinese calligraphy history and technique for a year to improve my own brushwork.
My latest show DEPARTURE had a video and “reversible paintings” on transparent mylar (an archival paper-like plastic.) One side had irredescent mica on it that would change with the available light. For these works, I inspired by the definitions of the word “departure,” and by the structure of Chinese character “to depart.” I explored relationships between the calligraphic characters and photographic images taken from the DEPARTURE video. Some people have said that these paintings resemble “thought”.
Traditional Chinese calligraphy has its own critical criteria concerning the relationship between the horizontal and vertical strokes that make up the form of each character. This particular character reminded me of a snake and a doorway or gate, and seen in the video are a snake and some poles from an old cattle gate.
Arriving at a sense of balance and harmony in the execution of calligraphy is similar to the struggle of Homo sapiens to maintain equilibrium as they walk upright and becoming consciousness, hopefully evolving toward a higher civilization. Personally, I am concerned with the moral implications of the ‘intellegent” human presence on the earth and in the surrounding environment. And I am also interested in the theorys of physical movement as presented by the Alexander Technique. Some Americans say his theory is similiar to the practice of Tai Chi.
Q:There are many directors of experiment movies and video works who majored in painting from the very beginning. Can it be concluded that the instinct toward pictures contributes to their works. On the other hand, it can also be a restriction. Whats your idea?
A:I think it can be both and it depends on the person… I was always interested in movement and story telling. Everyday when I was around 4 or 5 years old, I would watch a movie on TV. My parents had a Bible with religious pictures by the great European Master painters. I liked the mythological stories and noticed how the painter composed the painting to tell the tale.
I also had a storybook, “Sleeping Beauty”. In it 12 fairies were at a banquet; each wore a different color of clothing; and had their own individual body and hand gestures carrying the action of the scene. I would practice these various hand forms. When my dad would photograph me, I would pose my hands in a similar manner.
My video performance in THE HOUSE OF THE GENTLE is based in gestures that I discovered when using “The Authentic Movement Technique” , a psycological process used by dancers, that uncovers basic un-conscience movement forms.
In each segment/ hexegram of THE HOUSE OF THE GENTLE, I chose specific colors to wear. And in PETAL & THORNS, two colors – yellow and blue – emphasise the idea of the opposites of flower or weed, I believe that this kind of color choice is something that belongs primarily to the realm of painting choices.
So I think that you can move back and forth between the two. Some movies are composed of all still shot frames.
Q:I find that you began to make a movie by super 8 as early as in 1980s. But since then, you have not worked in this field for quite a long time. Why did you stop at that time?
A:I did as much as I could with the Super 8 at that time. I wanted to make layers of images, but did not have access to an optical printer. Although I think film is a more beautiful medium, it is easier now to make the videos.
Q:You set about the creation of multi-media work in the early 1990s with several different roles in it. However, you still turned to other jobs two years later. What attracted you to do such jobs? And which role were you interested in best?
A:At the time, I was painting mythological subjects, and wanted to see my painting move. This then belonged to the realm of mixed-media theatre, so I became producer/director/writer of these projects: PERSEPHONE IN THE UNDERGROUND; THE RAVEN; THE RAVENS HEAD, so I could explore storytelling. I knew a dancer, or actor or poet could perform on the stage better that I could, and that is why I employed them. After this I had access to making videos with the computer and then developed stories or narrative in this way. By manipulating the video images , it brought it closer to making a moving painting of images that I could keep forever.
Q:After that we saw your installation work. In fact, you keep working on various types of works these years. What impel you to do that? Is it that you regard art as nothing but a kind of game, so you just do what you like?
A:I chose whatever medium that I thought would best express what I was trying to say. I made installations without video before including video. You can see a sample of one in the video, JUST FOR MY FRIENDS. The room that I’m in is an actual gallery installation that I made, called SECRET LANGUAGE. I also had access to projectors and gallery space at that time through Snug Harbor Cultural Center and this helped me to make these works.
Q:How do you deal with the works of screenings: computer enhanced video? Or is it also your interest in a certain period?
A:I am still interested in screening my videos and in making more installations that call for using a video projector and would like to be commissioned for such works in the future.
Q:From my own perspective, I like Departure, your latest movie, best among your works. I wonder whether time will affect our views on experiment movies, for its features, such as experimentalness and pioneerness, will fade away with time goes on, just like fashion?
A:What about Deren’s MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON? Recently I saw some Stan Brakage films at the Whitney Museum in NY. They have a depth that makes you remember them. This I believe is the measure of a greater art. In painting class, my teachers, Marshall Gleiser, Will Barnet, Oliver Grimly and Rosewell Weidner all suggested that the more times you could see something new in a work of art, the richer it was. I see a lot of art in New York, if I remember it the next day it lives on in my mind and soul.
Q:I have met some American male director of experiment movies before I saw your works. It comes to me that the difference of gender produced something subtle and unacknowledgable, which is difficult to express in language.
A:I think of masculine images as direct, forward and vertical; while feminine ones include the surrounding horizontal space. In the segment # 37 The Family, from THE HOUSE OF THE GENTLE, my movie where I perform the I Ching energy, I perform both the masculine and feminine energies and join them together to form a totem surrounding by wind and flames that change color…
Q:As a female director, do you attach some importance to your identity in your works? For example, do you lay emphasis on the characteristics in female works?
A:I am interested in depicting forms of energy represented by my performances; sometimes these are masculine, sometimes feminine and sometimes it doesn’t matter at all…
Q:We find a kind of mysticism in your movies, especially in the movie The Gift of the Dream, for some movements in it seem to be a religion rite.
A:At the time I was reading PSYCHOLOGY AND ALCHEMY by C.G.Jung. I think exploring one’s un-conscience can be a sacred task. The “pink stone” is based in the idea of the Philosopher’s Stone – an Alchemical Symbol. In dreams objects change into other things. We all share similar visions in our un-conscience and I wanted to present the journey that a dream can take.
Q:Can I say that the name of your movie has nothing to do with the movie itself? For when I see the movies, what I feel is always different from the meaning of the name.
A:The titles refer to my performances or other images that seek to convey the premise of the piece, or the nature of the energy I’m exploring.
To me, dreams are like a gift given to us from the unconscience, so I named the video THE GIFT OF THE DREAM. THE HOUSE OF THE GENTLE, is the I Ching’s own name for hexegrams that are based on the element of the wind. TRAVELING WITH NEPTUNE: Portrait of my father- Neptune, is the Greco-Roman father god of the oceans and the patron of sailors (my father was a sailor). BIRTH is named after Lili Bita’s poem. DEPARTURE explores the meanings of that word. So the figure departs from an oceananic life to one of humanity’s upright walk. A lot of the images are dreamy and could also be a departure from sleep, or a heading into death.
Its definitions include a starting out, as on a trip or new course of action; a deviation or turning aside (from something.) ; [archaic] death.
Q:We find the use of Chinese characters in the movie Departure. And in another movie, we seem to see the application of the Chinese tradition of water, wood, gold, fire and soil. It seems that your are quite interested in Chinese culture.
A:The I Ching is one of the most brilliant books in the world. Nothing is greater that Nature and the I Ching uses Nature’s names as symbols to describe energy states that hold a kind of power in the mind. Different symbols are important to each person and they may not be able to explain this. Reguarding Chinese characters, it is said that their shapes were first seen in the cracks of tortoise shells. I find this to be a link into a secret part of the mind of man. This is a part that we cannot just reach out and touch when we want to, it usually comes to us in dreams, or a vision, or can be stimulated when we do something like the I Ching.
Asian landscape paintings also have poems on them that present the state of mind of the painter. I see poems as the fusion of words and passion, creating a form that later brings to consciousness what is being experienced. And the Chinese schlor-painters certainly exemplify this even more in their own calligraphic artworks.
Chinese characters seem to belong to both logic and emotion. In the West our alphabet is divorced from this. Chinese characters seem close to Native American petroglyphs carved into natural rocks and I really like them, but we don’t know what they mean, unlike the early Chinese writing.
Q:Maybe for some verbal reasons, I can not understand something in your movies. In your latest work, I can feel the attraction of the combination of views and sounds. How do you understand and cope with the relation between the two?
A:The sound was meant to comment on the story of the person crawling and walking. The person has an interior world and another outside life where the audience can see the person…I suppose all of it is like watching a dream.
Q:Is it possible to get rid of the meaning of the picture itself, or just take it as a signal without expressing the practical meaning of it.
A:Yes, I’m interested in having the viewer feel something rather than figuring out a meaning behind things…. You have said, “The views dismember to form sound, and sound changed into views, thus, the two mingle with each other.”
I think this is a brilliant comment on your part.
Q:Will you keep making experiment movies in the future? Will you try some other creations?
A:Yes, I’ll keep making movies and I’d like to do more video projection installations with actual objects.
Cover article on the art exhibit “Against TRUMPISM” The Art & Poetry of Resistance” at The Museum of International Propaganda. Curated by Patrick Gannon & Adrienne Amundsen; San Rafael CA
in The Pacific Sun newspaper:
UPRISE: THE ANGRY WOMEN ART SHOW: The Untitled Space; curator: Indira Cesarine; NY
VIDEO about: http://www.themarysue.com/uprise-angry-women/
2015 Joel Shlemowitz: A Camera, a 40-Mule Team, and Dancing Zombies: Lili White’s Trip Through California Deserts; Issue 99 BOOG CITY; June 2015; NY
2011 Greenpoint News Press- Review of OFF THE GRID show http://greenpointnews.com/2011/05/12/off-the-grid-a-new-show-at-17-frost/
2006 David Finkelstein; WESTERN; Hi-Beam & Filmthreat websites
Holland Cotter, “Where Witty Meets Gritty”; NY Times, November 15, 2002
Appendix of Dreams 1900-2000: Artistic & Psychological Perspectives;
authors: Lynn Gamwell, Ernest Hartmann, Donald Kuspit; Publisher: SUNY & Cornell University