Discovered Essays Publications

The Art of Curation: In Celebration of Canyon Cinema Discovered

Canyon Cinema Discovered

Image: Christopher Harris, 28.IV.81 (Bedouin Spark)

By Lynne Sachs 


My engagement with Canyon Cinema started when I was a young filmmaker living in San Francisco in the mid 1980s. Three decades older and thousands of miles away, I am not a bit surprised that this intertwined relationship between a filmmaker and her beloved distributor continues to this day. Between 2020 and 2022, I had the honor to participate as an advisor in the Canyon Cinema Discovered Curatorial Fellowship. Here I offer a few thoughts that came to my mind as I was reading the recently published Canyon Cinema Discovered catalog (Canyon Cinemazine #9, 2022) containing the four extraordinary curatorial essays that came out of this highly generative and ambitious endeavor. What a treat it was to read all four of these essays in a book that was so brilliantly and beautifully designed by Helen Shewolfe Tseng. So too must I express my enthusiasm for the editing guidance provided by S. Topiary Landberg and Brett Kashmere.


Image: Robert Fenz, Duet for Trumpet and Camera


In his essay “Trajectories of Self-Determination: Experimental Cinema’s Embrace of Jazz,” Juan Carlos Kase begins his text on experimental cinema with a reference to a short list of narrative films. Noting the scarcity of “meaningful collaborations” between feature film directors and jazz musicians or composers, he pays homage to a few exceptions by alluding to two of my personal favorites Elevator to the Gallows (1958) by Louis Malle and Shadows (1959) by John Cassavetes. Kase then asserts his belief that it is avant-garde filmmakers who have “embraced jazz and drawn formal and political inspiration from the ways in which it models alternative, spontaneous conceptions of art.” It is Kase’s distinction between the formal and political approaches to both the moving image and to music itself that makes his argument such a helpful framework by which we as readers can recognize and celebrate the intricate dynamic between these two expressive modalities. In reading his lucid, persuasive essay, I was struck by the way that he was able to build a concise critique of art history’s Eurocentric genealogy of Modernism through his acknowledgment of the widespread but underappreciated influences of Black jazz and improvisation. 

I was particularly moved by Kase’s close, passionate analysis of Christopher Harris’s 28.IV.81 (Bedouin Spark) (2009). Just as he does throughout this beautifully precise collection of visual and aural observations, Kase draws our attention to the way that Harris embraces “the musical vocabulary of jazz itself [with his] handheld glissandi and staccato in-camera edits,” ultimately “transfiguring the spirit of music into the material registers of graphic art” through a non-audible “music for the eyes.” Here, Kase elucidates his own theory of a “gestural cinema,” one in which the spirit of jazz is integrated into the very fiber of the image. Towards the end of Kase’s curatorial exploration, he talks about one of Canyon Cinema’s founders Bruce Baillie’s mid 1960s short films, All My Life (1966), a three-minute pan of a white picket fence on a hill in the glorious sunlight of Northern California. As we watch this image, we hear Ella Fitzgerald singing the eponymous song of the film’s title. It’s simple, yes, but it works, making this film a classic of the American avant-garde. Perhaps it is the fact that we don’t really know why it makes our eyes and ears feel truly ecstatic that Kase contends that this movie epitomizes renowned NYC jazz D.J. Phil Schaap’s notion of the “magical rhythm float,” the perfect Apollonian ideal, what Roland Barthes so succinctly coined “the text of bliss.”


Image: Ja’Tovia Gary, Giverny I (Négresse Impériale)


I was immediately drawn into Chrystel Oloukoï’s curatorial essay “Playing in the Dark: Watery Experiments” in her evocative opening where she reminds us of her gratitude to Toni Morrison and Édouard Glissant for their highly influential thinking on literature, Blackness, and opacity. Oloukoï then introduces us to her exploration of water as a visual motif that touches on the films that comprise her Canyon program. Sadly, the only films I had seen in her collection were David Gatten’s What the Water Said Nos. 1-3 (1998) and Nos. 4-6 (2006-2007) and Ja’Tovia Gary’s Giverny I (Négresse Impériale) (2017). I was so taken with Oloukoï’s notion of the non-human agency that is part of Gatten’s engagement with what she calls an ecocinema, celebrating the on-screen gestural presence or writing, you might say, of ocean crabs in the context of a film exploring the epistolary dynamics found in the exchange of letters. Her explanation of the way that Gary uses a manual brushing of the filmic surface as a way to disrupt and fragment the serenity of Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s Giverny garden gave me the tools to better examine the filmmaker’s conceptual journey, as well as the problematic legacy that is part and parcel of the European art historical canon. Inserted just after this essay were a series of distinctly formed and labeled maps which Oloukoï asserts “testify to the extent to which no body of water has been left untouched by interconnected histories of slavery, colonialism, and  immigration.” Together, these maps, Oloukoï’s collection of films, and the accompanying essay force us as readers and spectators to complicate the dynamic between sublime and haunting images that are so much a part of an experimental cinema practice.

In my reading of Oloukoï’s concept of “residence time” as it explains the lasting presence of a substance in the water, I was reminded of poet Marlene NourbeSe Philip’s long-format poem “Zong!” which analyzes and abstracts a harrowing 18th century story of a nautical murder of enslaved people on a ship where the captain and his crew threw 40 human beings into the Atlantic Ocean in order to collect insurance money. So writes Oloukoï, “If the waters do speak, they do so in excess of narrative threads, in an alchemy full of beauty but also full of terror.”


Image: Rhea Storr, A Protest, A Celebration, A Mixed Message


Ekin Pinar begins her essay for “Insurgent Articulations” with a reference to cultural thinker Hal Foster, asking us as viewers of politically-engaged films to make a distinction between work that “describes” social upheaval and protest and work that constructs its own critical and interpretive visual modality. With a nod to the tools of semiotics, Pinar ponders the meaning and influence of “non-indexical” imagery as it stretches, disrupts, and breaks the more obvious connections between actions and meanings. In this way, she begins simply by challenging the binary between radical form and radical content which she believes has contributed to the broad thinking that experimental film cannot claim to change the world, or at the least change the thinking of its audience. Moving from Foster’s questioning to the more contemporary analyses of artist Hito Steyerl, Pinar articulates her own two-layered paradigm for conceptualizing an “aesthetics of protest.” Through this structural formation, Pinar asks us to contemplate how we watch a political action, either from within. as a demonstrator ourselves. or from without, as bystanders and later as members of a film audience. Later in her essay, Pinar introduces the writing of Judith Butler as a way to think about political acts – as non-confrontational members of demonstrations or as intentional disruptors through acts of civil disobedience. In both situations, participants become self-aware performers whose gestures and words can be deconstructed.

I was familiar with the work of Dominic Angerame, Rhea Storr, Toney Merritt, Joyce Wieland, Sharon Hayes, and Kate Millett but had only seen three of the films in this collection: New Left Note (1968-1982) by Saul Levine, Sisters! (1973) by Barbara Hammer, and my own film Investigation of a Flame (2001). By interweaving theory with astute visual analysis, Pinar gives us the tools to take our appreciation for everything filmic – including animation, archival material, and collage-style editing – and apply these visual tropes to our understanding of a filmmaker’s political intentions. Through it all, Pinar attempts to prove the commitment of the avant-garde filmmaker to providing a social or political critique while continuing to invent new forms of visual and aural expression.


Image: Emily Chao, No Land


Aaditya Aggarwal’s “Prime Time Reverie” taunts us to think about and reject TV’s historical “hyper-visibilty” of women’s bodies. I have seen the films in the program by Cauleen Smith, Barbara Hammer, Naomi Uman and, of course, myself. I am also quite familiar with the work of artists Nam June Paik and Jud Yalkut, Emily Chao, Sandra Davis, and Paige Taul.

In academic settings, television is most often discussed using a sociological or media studies framework for analysis, so it was refreshing to discover Aggarwal’s blending of the popular culture and avant-garde without judgment of either. I was completely captivated by Aggarwal’s own fascination with the appliance itself, an object of transmission found in the home, historically viewed, at least during the day, almost exclusively by women who are “nudged and mirrored in intimate and discerning ways.” Honestly, I learned an enormous amount about my very early film Still Life with Woman and Four Objects (1986) as well as Cauleen Smith’s Chronicles of a Lying Spirit (by Kelly Gabron) (1992) through Aggarwal’s suggestion that they both can be read as “artistic variations on and intentional detours from the soap format.” I doubt that Aggarwal knows that Cauleen and I were student peers in the Cinema Department at San Francisco State University in the late 1980s, producing these two short riffs on “slice-of-life profiles” that have so often been exploited and deformed by broadcast TV.

Aggarwal’s essay and the accompanying program wrap themselves up with a thoughtful study of Emily Chao’s film No Land (2019), allowing us to think more deeply about the essay’s earlier reference to Genevieve Yue’s text “The China Girl on the Margins of Film.” Here, both an experimental film and a critical article force us to ponder the box, the frame, and the cell itself as deleterious formations that construct, constrain, and imprison at the same time that they work so hard to accomplish only one simple task – entertain.

An exquisitely conceived program of short films pushes viewers toward new ways of thinking not only about the films themselves, but also about how those cinematic experiences can illuminate the world beyond the walls of the theater or the frame of the screen. Just as the great montage filmmakers developed and practiced their dialectical theories on the relationship between shots, so too does a film curator spark a unique awareness for each and every member of an audience. What an honor it was for me to be so deeply involved in the Canyon Cinema Discovered project, as an advisor, an artist, and now as a reader of this marvelous catalog of film programs and essays.