The Daily Californian Online

Artists' Television Access Marries Live Music, Video Art

By Amelia Taylor-Hochberg
Daily Cal Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011
Category: Arts & Entertainment > Arts & Books

Artists' Television Access in San Francisco's Mission District prides itself on providing mass media for the non-masses, to those fringe visual artists producing alternative forms of visual art. "Mission Eye & Ear," a showcase of Bay Area video artists and musicians, gave special attention to live collaboration and improvisation between local artists.

ATA started showcasing outlier art at its inception in the 1980s. While museum curators were giving attention to performance and body art, there weren't many established venues for media art. ATA provided the space and equipment for burgeoning media artists who were struggling to find homes for their projects. That history built the foundation for a strong community of artists, still experimenting and practicing at ATA today.

While limited to a selection of West Coast filmmakers, the experimental films of "Mission Eye & Ear" could not be collectively categorized by visual style. But rather than fall into discord, the pieces were held together by a common musical style. Non-melodic, expressive scores created a consistent atmosphere of tension and subtle dread. This consistency provided the glue to hold the diversity of film styles together.

Of the four filmmakers whose projects were screened, Nara Denning, Mike Kuchar and Mark Wilson are active in the Bay Area, with Carl Diehl hailing from Portland. Their nine films ranged from a dystopian vision of one man's life in a city of dogs (Nara Denning's "Bad Dream") to a collection of meditations on inanimate objects and sceneries in San Francisco (Mark Wilson's "Tensile"). But an eerie and dissonant mood rose above the visual chaos, dominating the tiny screening room's atmosphere. This mood was in part enforced by simultaneous live musical performances. In Kuchar's "Free Form Frolic," musicians Phillip Greenlief, Kyle Bruckmann and Lance Grabmiller (collectively performing as Shudder) belted out a donkey-din of saxophone, oboe and electronic sounds. Minor keys and syncopated, staccato rhythms exaggerated the already creepy and disconcerting visions. These images included women writhing on checkerboard floors, crawling up and down staircases and chomping on vinyl records.

Kuchar's contorts his human subjects, but they are still recognizably human. Carl Diehl's "Derelict Dirigibles" focuses on completely unhuman images, pairing abstract visuals with live, improvised banjo, mandolin and synthesizer. Networks of orange strings and lazy cubes floated across the screen, with erratic banjo crescendos anticipating cuts from image to image. Falling in and out of time with the pacing of the film, the music initiated a disjointed, minor-key conversation between ear and eye, trying to make sense of what was being performed. "Derelict Dirigibles" focuses on objects and forms while "Free Form Frolic" relies on human characters, but the music created a bizarre and unnerving mood where both films could converge.

A similar mood shadows Denning's "It Came From the Id." Marking a stark substantive shift from Kuchar and Diehl's pieces, Denning's film depicts a human narrative, but accompanied by a similar musical style. Simply put, a housewife character makes a menacing bowl of putrid green soup for her Buddy Holly beaux, and the soup begins to boil with evil serpentine spirits and gnashing teeth. Acrid colors and dirtied, waxen set pieces set a somber tone, but when a giant thing pulls itself out of the bowl of soup and crawls across the kitchen floor, the beaux is petrified with cartoonish fear.

But that satisfaction of the action/reaction shot, of a causal sequence, is something that is withheld from most of the program's other films. The films depict humans acting disgusted, angry, confused, scared, but rarely do we get to see what is causing all of this anguish. Tying together all this seemingly causeless action is the music, establishing a collective ghostly tone. This bridged the gaps between otherwise isolated films, presenting a fascinating collection of films that defy generalization.

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