Part curatorial mishmash, part piss-taking of poetry and poets, part Bollywood reverence, part goofy video party, treated consistently as poetry. Mónica de la Torre interviews Brandon Downing after the jump.
Mónica de la Torre: How do you go about culling the dizzying array of footage that you incorporate in your films?
Brandon Downing: As a life-long collagist in a degree of formats, I’ve always been a bit of a “content amasser.” Even my earliest narrative efforts in film school often involved me reshooting stock or old newsreel footage directly off a projection screen and incorporating it into my works. Back in those “analog days” I would move from apartment to apartment with box after box of reels and short-ends of old commercials, 16mm travelogue footage, instructional films, and the like.
The digital age certainly ramped things up for me. The root of the collecting for these more recent pieces of the last 3-5 years goes to a unique, and for the most part discontinued, innovation in the DVD industry. Back in 2004, a few manufacturers began offering TiVO DVD-burners that essentially combined a DVD archiving system, a large hard drive, and a free basic TiVO service. I could set up the system to record the “golden hours” of late-night public access and Z movie viewings without actually having to be fully awake to press record and watch.
My longtime obsession with recording the height and the dregs of popular culture (mostly dregs) instantly switched from being a fretful process of VCR programming, tape juggling, and teetering stacks of media to a far more systematic process of reviewing, archiving, and saving. After a few years of filling binders with literally thousands of DVDs of material, with the eventual goal of having a fully stocked “alphabet” from which to recomposite clips into new forms, something really seemed to click. I went from my old method of making “mixtapes” with multiple VCRs and low-quality tapes to actually having decent, easily manipulated source material on a fast digital workstation. With this new ease-of-use I felt like I might be able to make something a little less ephemeral, a little more structured, more careful, and of higher quality.
But I’ve since discontinued the TiVo archiving, as that sort of finicky retention is itself draining.
MT: So you don’t have an idea of what you want in your head first and then go looking for it, but rather come upon stuff that you can’t resist appropriating. There’s a distinction to be made between “found” and “sought” materials, especially in terms of the role of chance in the creative process. It sounds like you do encounter your materials randomly.
BD: I remain a very systematic viewer, and generally take any number of short clips and weirdnesses from the movies and programs I’m watching and save them for some spooky or silly future use, not with any sort of preconceived notion per se. I’ll generally just create thematic “pods” of accumulated clips. With some luck, eventually these groupings, with some shifting around, might start to express a certain feeling or emotion or physical mood. Of course, sometimes there are clips that just scream for instantaneous use: a recent discovery of the entire trove of MGM’s notorious Dogville shorts had me running joyously around the house like a nut. Yet these “can’t resist” elements are often the ones that are the most difficult to use in the end. I guess I’m drawn to components that, if sensitively combined, can help dissolve the seam of meaning that separates them; their individual distinction can be quietly lent to the service of the piece as a whole.
MT: I wasn’t aware of the fact that you had actually gone to film school. Where did you study? Did you always think of yourself as a poet as well?
BD: Film and literature and I go a ways back. I was an attempted filmmaker for many years. I fled California when I was 19, after a couple of college experiences didn’t really work out. I randomly ended up in Chicago, where I lucked my way into the film community through a cadre of fellow part-time banquet waiters who also happened to be pretty kinetic experimental filmmakers and actors. I went to Columbia College Chicago, a still-excellent filmmaking program that emphasized that you needed to work, work, and work within film at every opportunity. There was this tight little unit of student and early-career film kids, and we just sort of traded roles and worked on each project we could latch onto. Commercials, thesis films, in-house training pieces, whatever. I even worked briefly on a John Hughes film. My own student films were drawn-out, overthought, and far-too-materially-ambitious, and often relied on found footage and collage. They got some attention at the time, which was nice, but I also found myself worn out by the collaborative industriousness and backbreaking work that small-unit filmmaking was going to require of me. And it’s as expensive as fuck!
Meanwhile, I’m spending more and more time scripting false scenarios and synopses, storyboarding projects that could never be actually made, carefully photographing locations for shoots that weren’t going to happen . . . a form of writing, basically. I spent much of my last year or so before graduating in creative writing classes, working on what I thought were stories that would be films down the road. Eventually, that just became another form of prose. Filmic prose? Maybe. But prose.
MT: So how did you actually go from one medium to the other?
BD: Moving back to the Bay Area in the early ’90s, I got involved with the graduate creative writing program at San Francisco State, where my emphasis on experimental fiction work-stories that used diagrams, illustrations, trash, etc.-started segueing into flat-out poetics. I drove into the tunnel of lyric, and, for a while at least, I “became a poet.” The community at SFSU was great because there were a lot of really interesting poets with an unbelievable tolerance and embrace for experimental forms-I often found I wasn’t being nutty enough. But even then I was quite shy to claim myself an out-and-out poet; the other forms were always churning there, whether continuing with large-format photography, using found materials and shredded texts as key compositing tools, hoarding garage-sale videos . . . that sort of thing. I published a lot of slanted lyric pieces that were in a sense collages, as I was poaching a lot of my work’s “emotional tenor” from outside source materials, stealing tone from magazines, poetry reading introductions, etc.
After moving to NYC full time in early 2000 I willfully decided to get films back into my practice, somehow.
MT: One of my favorite things about your collages-both the film and the page ones-is they’re conversant with both contemporary film and art discourse. I’m thinking, for instance, of someone like Christian Marcley, but also Guy Maddin. You masterfully avoid the shoddy, illustrative feel of cheesy poet-made videos brimming with open skies, windswept plant-life, and spooked moons . . . I don’t mean to be harsh on poets. Your work also has lots to teach video artists: you use words both critically and playfully, mining the comedic potential in language’s never one-to-one relation to the visual image.
BD: Like many people in this city, after September 11th I spent an awful lot of time at home watching movies and shitty television, a little miffed and depressed, and getting myself terribly inebriated. At some point, while I was watching this dreadful semi-musical adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at 3 or 4 AM, I started actually doing real-time improvisational writing as the scenes were unraveling, writing as fast as my hand could move, in some kind of idiot trance. The movie aired a few times over one long weekend, and in the end, I had “transcribed it.” Sort of. I felt like the writing was some sort of weird filmic companion to the film, that it actually contained some small piece of me. If some other person were to carefully read the text I’d written while watching that same film, somehow, through some sort of dirty triangulation, “I” would be reconstituted from the two concurrent sources as some sort of motion-picture avatar or genie. It’s a tough visual to get across. Let me just say that for several years I used this procedural film and poetic whatever-it-is as the key conceit of Dark Brandon, a project that eventually came out in 2005 as a book of poetry/film studies.
MT: Speaking of conceits and procedural writing, what’s your involvement with Flarf? How does your work relate to its program?
BD: While I was working on Dark Brandon, I was feeling a growing excitement about the next logical step in the process: flipping that conceit around, using the burnt-logic, ephemeral narrativity, straight-up weirdness of this poetics and turning it back onto filmmaking itself.
I had been collecting and archiving footage again for several years, and this great design job I’d lucked into back in 2001, which I still have, had given me a whole new digital-filmmaking skill-set. As I frequently had to create short video pieces for exhibits and broadcast clients, I had become comfortable with editing software. So I decided to forsake copyright ethics, the heroism of complete originality, the safety of working in an acceptable genre, and start making these weird compilations from my archives: part curatorial mishmash, part piss-taking of poetry and poets, part Bollywood reverence, part goofy video party. But I was treating them consistently as poems. They were messy, a little vulgar, kind of mean, and I shared these early pieces with my friends, particularly Gary Sullivan, Nada Gordon, and other members of the Flarf Collective, who were like, “Dude, this is just like all that Flarf poetry!” The theft, the idiocy, the recombination, the emotive kernel. The deluded self-belief-both of the poets depicted in my films and of myself for combining it all together in the first place.
Maybe they were right? They got it right away. I wasn’t a member of the collective at that time; I’m sort of phobic of groups, but I was always around. Eventually, I started showing slightly more polished pieces as preludes to, or in lieu of, my participation in poetry readings. When Gary and Jordan Davis were getting the programming together for the first Flarf Festival in 2006, they asked me to do a new piece just for it. I intentionally made it more “flarfy”-a little dirtier, more vulgar, disjunctive and funny-creepy. It was completely satisfying, and made me wonder if this hybrid wasn’t really a form all on its own, rather than being a loud and flashy “poetry enhancer.”
I’ve never really written much Flarf poetry outside of one long play, but the videos have evolved over the last several years to encompass a more formal approach to translation, titling, onscreen language, and the word-image chasm. I love being part of that small community-there are few things more fun to do at work to see what these motherfuckers are coming up with on a daily basis. And watching them actually grow into the oversized art ogres implied by their ideations has also been a blast. And so I keep logging playtime to make these probably illegal assemblages. It’s great that more people might have a chance to watch them, as I’m always really interested when folks outside of poetryland come across the work. Tell your readers to let me know!