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Michael Guillén: In Max Goldberg's SF360 write-up on Kino21, he laid out where the name came from and the organization's mission statement. That piece went up in late August of last year around the time you were screening Nathaniel Dorsky's films at SF Camerawork. What's been going on with the organization since then?
Konrad Steiner: We've pretty much stayed the course from what the intention was as we stated it in that context, which was to keep the experimental also a little bit politicized and to recognize that our turf, our purview, is engaged filmmaking rather than formalist filmmaking. Formalist work can be wonderful, enlightening and blow your mind; but, we're at a period in the culture in this country where it's a little hard to countenance that. There's a sense of responsibility that's saying, "What kind of work is being done to try to engage people's consciousness of the world rather than just consciousness of their perceptions?"
Guillén: Just so I'm clear, when you say "formalist", what exactly do you mean?
Steiner: I mean experimental; hardcore avant-garde experiments in form. That's great stuff, and other people might be interested in showing that, but—within that realm—there are people who are trying to experiment with both form as it's applied to subject. My co-curator Irina Leimbacher is particularly interested in experimental documentary. We pursue that to some extent. We had a show with Ken Jacobs' film Perfect Film and Craig Baldwin's film RocketKitKongoKit; both of which are highly charged politically. One was about the assassination of Malcolm X and the other about the takeover of the Congo by a German rocket company.
Guillén: You've also screened some of Chris Marker's work?
Steiner: Yes, last Spring we screened Grin Without A Cat, which is basically about the history of the Left. But the next show was a Bruce Baillie film that was an extremely personal, made in the early '70s but with a '60s-style lush visual documentary about going through death and birth.
Guillén: As someone who's long been involved in the experimental film scene and who's had a chance to gauge audience reception, are you feeling that audiences are wanting more of a political engagement in experimental film? Are they getting tired of—as you say—formalist exercises?
Steiner: There are audiences for that. There are plenty of niche markets for all of those things. I have to say, it's a hard sell in the sense that you can't really try to pitch an experimental documentary because people's entertainment dollar is coveted by the many venues around the city, or just staying home and renting a DVD. So it has to somehow be topical or—in the case of Marker—someone who has a reputation and people haven't seen this film because it's rare. Then they'll come out. But the genre in itself doesn't get anybody excited.
Guillén: Within the context of alternate exhibition itself being a kind of art form, is there an aesthetic that is formed out of the archival value of films when you group them together? Does that generate a more resonant gestalt? In other words, if you saw these films individually, would they resonate as much as if you were presenting them contextually within a body of work?
Steiner: There's a hierarchy of structures, right? There's the Show, where you put things together that might inflect each others' reading. For example, we did this show called "Regime Change", which our nation is involved in—right?—in a few countries right now and has been involved in forever, trying to change the political map of the world. The idea was to get films that were dealing with that topic within the realm of the impression from below, rather than the political analysis from above. We tried to pick films that were current. The Marker film was older; but, it gave a sense of historical lineage of this kind of work. What happens to people when the government falls? There is a way that you can make a show that traces the lineage of an awareness through audiovisual work—not through didacticism or through voiceover telling you what to think about an image—but, through image work and sound work itself. So there's that kind of thing.
But then there's also the idea of the calendar at a higher level of structure: what shows are on in your whole calendar? Within a show there are the group of films that you pick for a show, but then also across shows; what is the arc that you're showing? What is the spectrum of the work? That's why we showed a Baillie film right after we showed a Marker film right after we showed an Yvonne Rainer film, which is sort of a triangulation of three wildly different aesthetics. It's the idea that filmmakers use documentary as a personal medium, rather than as a conventional documentary style medium, like P.O.V. or Frontline or any number of other continuing series of documentary styles. If you take it and say, "I'm going to do this my way", you get an incredible variety of vantage points on political events and personal events and how those interlink. The value is in the variety.
Guillén: A word I use in my inconography studies a lot—and which you frequently use—is "polyvalent." Polyvalence is essential in understanding anything singular and it strikes me that your programming is purposely polyvalent.
Steiner: Yes, and another word I would apply to this discussion is "pluralistic." By having a layer of show after show after show, we don't have a "party line" particularly. We recognize that these points of view are all valid. We're in this mix of having to reconcile them. How do they all co-exist? How does Bruce Baillie make a film that is almost like a drug trip? And we vouch for that? And then Chris Marker does an overview of how the Left has failed over and over again in the 20th Century and we vouch for that as well. We love both of those. There is a pluralist spirit in that.
Guillén: Though I unfortunately missed it, I was also intrigued by your program of Lebanese experimental shorts. Why did Kino21 feel compelled to showcase experimental shorts from another geographic region altogether?
Steiner: I would defer to Irina on that since she programmed that show. But I can say a few things about it that interest me. Laura Marks brought a series of films from Lebanon and it was interesting to think of the term "experimental" and wonder if that was an export, or whether it's an indigenous expression? If something is experimental, do we know what that means in another culture? That's the interest in showing experimental work from another culture. It isn't necessarily the same thing. Here "experimental" might mean doing something fancy with the montage; but it's couched within an avant-garde tradition, a local tradition to that community. With all the talk about globalization and everything, it gets lost that there are still local lineages of work. Something that we might understand as conventional, we might be misunderstanding.
It's also how it's framed. If we say, "These are Lebanese films" then your expectation might be, "Oh, I'm expecting to see some straightforward explanation of what's up in Lebanon"; but then, they're not. They're about questioning what the image is to people. One of the films investigated photographs via two aspects. One aspect was of digital video images of current situations in Lebanon but one of the other aspects was of photographs of the Bedouin that were taken a century ago. What was interesting about this film to me was the introduction of a technology into a culture. The Bedouins had no idea of what a photograph was and they were being photographed in a documentary way. These images were totally set up by the people who were taking them but what did they say about the people they were taking pictures of? The interaction of a technology and a culture is parallel to the interaction of a history of filmmaking within a culture and what a gesture means in that culture.
Guillén: Are their forums or festivals for international experimental filmmaking?
Steiner: There are a lot of festivals. There's no lack of that. But people speak different languages and people have seen different things. When I use the word "lineage", I mean the lineage of what have you seen? What are you familiar with? What is informing your work? And it isn't necessarily just verbal knowledge.
Guillén: Kino21 was also involved in the Heinz Emigholz series at Pacific Film Archives, no?
Steiner: I tried to get him to the Bay Area three years ago.
Guillén: Was your interest in bringing Emigholz to the Bay Area because his films border on experimental documentary (even though he discounted that categorization when I interviewed him)?
Steiner: He's not a documentary filmmaker. I wouldn't think of him that way. My interest in Emigholz was that I had never seen anyone do what he was doing. He had guts, that's the easiest way I can put it. He's very courageous to make films that do not offer you what you came in to expect. They're billed as films about architecture but—after you watch them—you say, "I didn't learn anything, in a conventional Wikipedia-type way!" But you are enraptured.
You've only seen his architecture films but Emigholz has a lot of other kinds of work, which I've seen. I wanted to do a whole retrospective but we didn't have the money, it would have been too expensive, so it ended up that he was "packaged" on this tour as films about photography and architecture.
Guillén: I believe interest had gelled around Schindler's Houses. I can understand why he was touring on the architectural ticket.
Steiner: No, it makes sense. In terms of trying to get as many of the films here as possible, talking with Kathy Geritz at PFA and Adam Hyman in LA, we realized that Emigholz's range of work was too broad for a short series. To say, "Here's an important visual artist. He works in many media. He's a scriptwriter, a graphic artist, a filmmaker, an illustrator..."—it wasn't something we could do in four shows, and hope that people would get it. We had to focus it. I would really have wanted to do more of his narrative features and his incredibly animated graphic films—that was my interest—but, you do what you can.