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Interview with Karyn Sandlos

September 2000

KS: Enlightened Nonsense is the title of a series of ten short films that you are in the process of completing. These films explore complex themes through repetitive patterns of self-abuse-you fall down, pick burrs out of your underpants, take hits to the head from a basketball, rip your face off, and drown yourself. Your films are as hilarious as they are dark. Can you talk about the juxtaposition of masochism and humour in your work?

DL: You mean apart from masochism being inherently hilarious? I think it’s important to say that I would never use a word like self-abuse. Because for me the films are performances, not necessarily abuses. The fact that the performances rely on a certain level of found masochism in the performer or in the setting is important. But I wouldn’t think about the films with masochism as a singular source. If the films were just about humour and masochism I think the juxtaposition would be a natural one. It’s like cynicism, and cynicism is a kind of wit that draws on despair. Not all horrible things are funnyÑonly the funny ones. So if there is a connection between humour and masochism in my work, I would say that it’s a connection only when it’s funny. Moo-Head and Fall aren’t meant to be hilarious movies.

KS: I think your films make people laugh and wonder why they are laughing at the same time.

DL: Yes, but that’s not about my masochism. They’re laughing because they don’t understand. I think people laugh sometimes because they would rather not think about what they get thinking about when they look at the work.

KS: So you think humour makes it easier for the viewer to deal with the subject matter of the films?

DL: Sometimes, yes. It helps me make the work. But that aspect is not necessarily intended to help the audience out. Having said that it’s not my intention to make it difficult for an audience either. But there is an element of the ridiculous, and there’s an element of nonsensical stupidity in the films, and I suppose being able to see that in the work does make the subject matter more digestible. I don’t want to make work that people can’t stand to watch.

KS: How would you describe the subject matter of your films?

DL: I’d probably make a list of themes for you. I would say the films are about testing one’s physical limits. Masochism would be the second, and number three would be humour. Number four… I would say that the films are about dreaming, and I don’t mean that in that get me the fucking unicorn way, I mean that the subject matter of my dreams is translated into the films sometimes. I would say that the films are about sex and sexuality in a very confused way. They are about sexual discomfort, perhaps. They are very much about despair. Each film is about the body versus fill in the blank…so water, tape, whatever. The films are about relationships: me and the world, me and somebody else, me and my job. You’ll notice in the films there is always a pairing of at least two things. And they’re about repetition–how we proceed through various stages of our psychic life having to reconstruct and redefine the same things from a few years ago. It’s about habit. Love it or hate it, repetition for me has been a pretty profound concept. And, number ten; the films are about filmmaking.

KS: What about fantasy?

DL: When I first started making films I was describing them as fantasies of my own demise and in fact that’s written in many descriptions of my work. And I would say that’s still quite true. But fantasies of one’s demise are very complex. They don’t come in a tight little package. So my fantasies of my own demise might be a film about me going shopping. It’s not necessarily what you would think. So I think fantasy plays an important role, but now that I’m ten films down the road, maybe not as much as it used to. Maybe it’s reality now. I mean, rip tape off your face for two days and tell me that’s not about reality.

KS: Can you talk about your method? Do you know what film you are making when you start shooting?

DL: No. No more so than one might have a million ideas before one goes to make something. For me it’s usually whatever idea knocks the hardest, or is most easily accessed on a given day.

KS: At what point do you know what film you are making?

DL: Well there are two answers to that question: One is when I start and one is when I finish. I might wake up in the morning and think,”OK I have an afternoon and I want to shoot something, and I thought maybe I would shoot this but it’s going to be too hard, or I don’t feel like getting wet. Maybe I’ll just try this one thing”. And I might find somebody to help me out, or I might just go sit in a field, or I might just whip out my camera and try it.

KS: So it’s quite spontaneous?

DL: Totally spontaneous. And the process loses its spontaneity when something doesn’t turn out and I have to reshoot. But I usually use every scrap of film I have that’s worth looking at. That’s an aspect of my filmmaking that I have imposed. I tell myself that there’s only so much I’m allowed to do. I’m allowed to do whatever it is I’m going to do for the film, and I allow myself to shoot it a couple of times and after that it’s like three strikes you’re out. After that if it’s too hard, or I can’t get the shot, or it’s like it wasn’t meant to be, I just trash it and do something else. I try to remain very committed to the experience of what it is to shoot the films and how I see that contained in action.

KS: Do you work alone?

DL: I try to work alone as much as I possibly can. There are occasions, especially when I use a Bolex, when I can’t work alone because when I wind the camera and get set up to do whatever I’m going to do, by the time I’m doing it the camera’s wind is over. There are times when I can’t stay close enough to the camera, and there are other times when I’m too messy or I can’t see.

KS: Do you prefer to work alone?

DL: Absolutely. Because I think it does something to the relationship between me and the camera. When you shoot yourself it always looks and feels different than when someone else shoots you. When I made Fall I shot 500 feet of film of myself running away from the camera, throwing myself on the ground and then running back towards the camera. And all that stuff in between is some of the best stuff I shot. In the films where I’m right in front of the camera and I have to lean forward to turn it on and off… so much gets made there.

KS: Have you always worked this way?

DL: As an artist generally it’s hard to say because I’ve done a lot of collaborative work. I would say that my practice has been split fifty-fifty: Work of my own and work that I’ve done with other people, which I really love. The work that I’ve done myself has been primarily performance based, self-sufficient, process based and narcissistic.

KS: Filmmakers tell personal stories in many different ways, but it strikes me that your work represents quite a unique form of diaristic filmmaking. You are always the subject of your own films, and as the subject you are typically engaged in some bizarre performance. Can you talk about who or what has influenced your work?

DL: Psychoanalysis has influenced my work. I see my films as autobiographical, but I don’t see them as stories. Cumulatively they may tell a story, but individually they tell things, stuff, ideas, feelings. I don’t think they tell you as much as autobiographical work typically would. The films tell you a little bit of something about me, but it’s so specific that it’s almost as if you are looking at my arm as opposed to all of me. I think there is something withholding about the work. I’m not giving that much away, because I only give the viewer a certain range and quality of information about myself. So the films tell the audience things that I have been thinking about over the last few years, which are the result of spending five days a week on an analyst’s couch trying understand things about myself that are complicated and rather dark. And I think that it is inevitable that those things would have to find a voice outside of analysis eventually. It’s really hard to talk about that stuff and although it’s clichŽ, I feel like I’m better at talking about it as an artist than I am as a human being. Eventually I felt as though I was going to have to get down and dirty with some skeletons in the closet, with some things have been unconscious fuck ups for me. I’m not as interested in psychoanalytic theory as I am in the process of talking about oneself in a concentrated way for a long period of time, and what the implications of that are for the psyche, and what the implications are when you leave that room. What does it do to you? That’s a question. And I think making these ten films has been about asking that question.

KS: Does the unconscious speak directly?

DL: No. The unconscious is very tricky. It doesn’t always speak directly. For instance, it can take on years to decipher a tic, or a symptom. What does having a psychosomatic pain in your leg mean? It might be related to something specific, but something so defended against that is so complicated that you may never know what it means. The unconscious is like someone went in and pulled all the plugs out and then put them all in the other way.

KS: Are your films like performances of unconscious expression?

DL: Yes. But I wonder about your use of the word ‘bizarre’ when you describe the performances in the films. Why bizarre?

KS: I chose the word bizarre because I think that it describes the nonsensical quality of your work, the feeling of not quite knowing what you’re up to when you are doing what you are doing on screen.

DL: Can you give me an example?

KS: For instance, when you are standing in the middle of a field getting hit in the head by a basketball that someone is repeatedly throwing from off screen.

DL: Well that happens, that’s not so bizarre. But the notion that something is bizarre implies that it is completely out of the ordinary. And I would like to suggest that the things that I do in my films are not that out of the ordinary and not that bizarre. I use fairly common objects and scenarios that are familiar, and in some ways it’s simply the repetition of the interaction with the object that makes it unusual. Basketballs, packing tape, water whip cream, dirt, underwearÑthese are objects of the everyday. It’s the relationship and the intensity that gets made through repetition and through the scenario that is unusual. If there is anything bizarre it’s in the experience of making the films.

KS: Why does it bother you to imagine that your films might be taken as bizarre?

DL: Because I think that can make them freakish, and I don’t think the things I’m trying to articulate in the films are freakish things. Humiliation or discomfort or any of the things that might be experienced by me in the making of the works are pretty normal kinds of feelings. I suppose the majority of people would see the films as bizarre or weird or masochistic and self-abusive. I’m not trying to suggest that the works aren’t complex, but I want them to be accessible.

KS: Do you see this as a tension in your work?

DL: I fully accept the responsibility for a level of masochism in the work. What I object to is the focus people have placed on the idea that the action in the films is self-abusive. I just don’t find that a very useful or productive description and I don’t think it reflects much on the content of the work. I don’t make films where I stick my head in a bucket of cold water over and over again so that I can prove my machismo. I don’t make films to show people how much pain I can take. I would say that ninety-five percent of the things I do in the work are not painful.

KS: Any other influences on your work?

DL: Daytime television is a big influence. I’m a terrible sponge. I love television, but you can’t see it in my work. I love commercials, and noise, and rapid fire eye candy, and terrible sit coms with melodramatic oversensitive characters with empty lives and bad track pants.

KS: Do you have a favorite film star?

DL: Well you know whose performance just totally rocked my socks? The abominable snowman in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. He was so ferocious initially, and then once he got all his teeth taken out he became really helpful. And I thought to be able to play both the dark, sinister and aggressive monster, as well as the loving, caring, big fuzzy-wuzzy character was quite a challenge. And there was a great supporting cast in that film as well. The little fag dentist was excellent.

KS: Your films come out of years of participation in the Phil Hoffman Independent Imaging Retreat. Why do you keep going back to Phil’s farm?

DL: I’m fond of the farm for all sorts of reasons. I’m fond of the people that go there. I have an emotional attachment to the people and the place. And I haven’t really got any time to make work in a given year. So I’m attracted to the idea of going somewhere for a week where that’s what I’m supposed to do. You could call it a condition of my process that I have to be extracted from my life. And I respect the principals of the farm. I have a lot of admiration for what is taught and learned there, and I prefer that to other institutions of learning. There is a cult of Phil’s farm, and its reputation has been built on something very positive. It’s a process based learning environment that has a very collective body. People go there to spend a week learning the Bolex and hand processing. Then there is the other ninety-five percent of what you experience at Phil’s, and that has to do with a shared investment in the importance of making films through processes that are outside of industry norms and outside of institutional norms. It’s a complicated place with complicated people, and I find that very attractive.

KS: What kind of conditions do you seek out in order to create? What would be your ideal set of conditions?

DL: You mean like a big bag of money? I would keep making films the way that I make them, but what I would want is more psychic time, and more physical time. Having said that, without all the chaos I don’t know if I would make films in the same way, and if I wasn’t making films in this way I don’t know if I’d be making films. Someone asked me the other day if I have ever thought about making a feature. And I thought, ÔSure I could make a feature but I’d have to make it in two weeks or I wouldn’t know how to make it.’ The conditions that I have applied are spontaneous and performative but at the same time they are very disciplined and very rigorous. I shot and processed over the two weeks that I was at Phil’s in June, and I did a tiny bit of cutting, and then I went ahead and made seven films in eight weeks at home. Without the discipline of time as a container of opportunity I’d probably be sitting around at home with my thumb up my ass trying to figure out which roll of film is in which box. The ultimate conditions would be that I would dedicate one week per month for the rest of my life to shooting, processing, cutting and finishing a film.

KS: Do you enjoy making your films? How would you describe the experience? How do you feel before, during, and afterwards?

DL: I feel mixed up. Sometimes the things that I deal with in my work make me feel very confused. Generally I feel physically hypersensitive. Sometimes I get really goofy and nervous, and I run around like a chicken with my head cut off. I run out into the bushes and I come back and I forgot my light meter, and I run back over there and I need a pen, and I go over there and I realize I haven’t got any film in my camera. I can be very scattered at times, especially if there’s something that I’m going to do that I’m not sure about. That’s always underlying, but there is also a fair amount of ease because I don’t rely on anyone else and what I need to do is usually not very complicated. So there’s me, a bucket of water and a roll of film. I try to make it easy on myself to execute the plan. With that comes a kind of calm that can override feeling freaked out or panicked about something psychically. It’s helpful that people I know have supported the kind of films that I make. The more I make films with that kind of support in place the less mixed up I feel about making them. Having said that I don’t expect that the confusion will ever go away and I don’t expect that it should.

KS: How do you feel about watching your films?

DL: It depends on who I’m watching them with. Part of me wants to say that anybody who says that they don’t enjoy watching their own films is a liar. For me there is something fundamentally important about making films: You have to be interested in your own subject matter. If you’re not interested in what you made your film about then I can’t understand why you made it. I can’t deny being truly self-indulgent on that level. I like to watch my films, especially in the dark by myself. When I’m watching them with large groups of people who I don’t know I feel like it’s just a matter of time before somebody in the audience recognizes me and comes up and says something really weird. So I try to sneak in and sneak out. I’m totally open to feedback about the films. If you are going to be an artist you should be able and willing to talk to people about the work. But I can’t help feeling insecure about it sometimes because the subject matter is very personal. So sometimes watching my own films is uncomfortable.

KS: Is it important that your films are hand processed?

DL: As often as possible, yes. I like the way it looks, and I also feel very attached to manipulating the work at that stage of the process. It’s like drawing. It really accentuates the subject matter. The fact that the surface of the film has been touched so much makes a big difference to me. If I had no choice but to take it to Exclusive, who I love, but who don’t make my films all scratchy, I just put them under my boot when I get them home, so that there is something of the surface that is alive.

KS: Is it important that you cut your original footage on a flat bed?

DL: Yes. I think that working with your original footage is like working with an object that you should get to know really well. I’m not afraid of working with the original footage, although sometimes I make irreparable mistakes that make me wish I didn’t work on the original. But boy you sure learn fast how not to make that mistake again! There’s no interface. Nobody’s fooling anybody. You’ve got an original print and an hour or two to work on it on your Steenbeck and you’d better be sober and you’d better be clear about what you’d like to do.

KS: In the film Scratch, we see rapidly cut found footage of cups and dishes breaking and a bed being made and unmade. InMoo-Head, we see little kids ogling their Jell-0 spoons. InAlways a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride of Frankenstein, we see a mother and daughter having an awkward conversation on the phone. In fact, there often seems to be a rather enigmatic conversation going on between the found footage in your films and the footage you have shot. Can you talk a bit about this interaction?

DL: When I use found footage I prioritize the sound over the picture. I’m actually after the sound. But obviously I choose sound with pictures that are interesting. Moo-Head would be the best example of how I work. The sound head and the picture head on a Steenbeck are in different places. There is two frames difference, so your picture is running at 24 fps and your sound is running at 26 fps. In Moo-Head I used the difference to synch the found sound up with the impact of the ball. The image became relevant, but it wasn’t as relevant as the sound. I would make equal cuts: five frames of found image, and five frames of my image. When the found footage is going through the sound head my image is going through the picture head. I try and synch the two by linking the found footage soundtracks up with my action. So you see the found footage and there is no sound. I want the found footage sound in my image.

KS: Do you think about sound when you are shooting your films? How and when does sound enter in to the process?

DL: My films are mostly silent. If there is sound I make it from the sounds of the splices and the hand processed film. I just mark up the space where the optical track is with pins and markers.

KL: So the static that we hear on films like Scratch is from the scratches on the sound strip?

DL: Yes, or from the splices, or the popping and snapping is from the hand processing, which creates irregularities throughout the emulsion of the film, and that has a sound. And what I’m doing for the films in the show is taking sound from screw ups and irregularities on the film surface and cutting it into soundtracks. For instance, I’m trying to use the difference between optically printed color stock and regular 7378. They sound different. There is an ambient white noise with the color stock, which is clear on the surface of the film. I’m creating loops for the soundtracks. I like the sound of film, and so the sound sources are generally from film. I don’t bring music into it.

KS: No folk songs?

DL: No folk guitar, no tambourine, no Beatles records played backwards.

KS: Rapid cuts and a repetitive use of images characterize your films. Do you have a method for editing? Can you describe it?

DL: Probably not without some awkwardness. I tell myself I’m going to edit this film in three days, or two days or I’m going to be done by the end of tonight. I always set a time frame. I think it was Mike Hoolboom that asked me ‘Why would you do that?’ And I don’t know. When I sit down to cut something I want to know that there is an end to that process. I like fast cuts a lot. It’s like, ‘I don’t know very much about art but I know what I like.’ I like to be overstimulated.

KS: Is there a rhythm in your editing process?

DL: Yes, there is. It’s more like a nervous tic. I sort of count it out. I want a film to feel like it flows. I tend to cut footage up into chunks that look more or less the same length, so the rhythm is built that way. There is a synchronicity between the cuts and what’s happening with the action in the image. And I also spend a lot of time deciding how I’m going to cut something before I start cutting it. So if I’ve got 350 feet of footage of tape going on my face forwards, and 350 feet of tape going on my face backwards, I’ll join the two heads together in the middle and work my way out. I try to do things with the mass and physical presence of the footageÑthings that you wouldn’t normally do. I don’t rough cut and then fine cut and move shots around all over the place. I just start somewhere, anywhere, and hope for the best most of the time. I don’t have any formal training. It’s pretty intuitive.

KS: Why are you making a series of films?

DL: I had some spare time. I’ve worked with the idea of a series before. I like multiples. I like ten boxes that are related. I like ten films that are related. I like twelve ears of corn. I like the idea of having one problem and ten solutions. Because I think there are usually many answers to a question, and by working in a series I get to see myself play it out in different ways. Also because of the brevity of the work–some of my films are thirty seconds long–I think some things get revealed only when they are rubbing up against other things. When you make a series all sorts of relationships occur between the works that you only see when you group them together, and I’m interested in what those things can be. Rarely do we see painters show one painting. People who draw don’t show one drawing. People who write songs don’t play one song. It seems logical to me to make a group of work.

KS: Are you finished with this particular body of work, or will you continue making films in the same vein?

DL: I think this particular body of work will have implications. It’s going to take me a long time to get through the material that I’ve dredged up psychically and physically in the work. So I suspect that I’ll make more work like it, and have twenty more ideas for work like it that I won’t have time to execute because I ran out of time and resources. And it’s tiring. I will make more work like this, but every time I make a piece it changes things: the criteria, the subject matter, and the interests change. I don’t know where making this kind of work will take me. It won’t always be the same, I hope.

KS: How will you know when you are finished with this particular series of work?

DL: I’ll know on September 13th that I’m finished, for now. I don’t know. I guess I have that question. People have expressed to me that they worry about my work, because every time I make a film I up the physical ante. I don’t think that’s actually true. I think what I’m actually doing is calming down. It doesn’t look like that but it feels like that. There probably isn’t an end. I don’t think I’ll ever know with any confidence when I’m finished, and I don’t necessarily think that I have to have an answer to that question. But it does cross my mind a lot.

KS: Someone said to me recently that art cures all. Is art a form of therapy?

DL: It depends on one’s definition of therapy. Having outed myself as an analytic subject, as one of those weirdoes that pays god-knows-how-much per week for analysis, I don’t actually think that art is a very therapeutic activity. The relationship between art and therapy really drives me crazy. I think the idea that art is a cathartic expressive thing that one does to heal oneself is ridiculous. I don’t think that art cures anything. It may answer fundamental personal questions for somebody, but I think of art as a political activity. I think of it as a complicated personal and physical activity. If I wanted to do something that was easy and self-reflective I’d probably do something else. The idea that art is therapy romanticizes art practice, as if art has no political or cultural value. It’s just for you to fix yourself. And if it is true, it’s true in a very small way compared to all the other things that filmmaking or writing novels or anything else is about.

KS: So what’s political about your films?

DL: Nothing. There’s nothing therapeutic about them either. Making art is not a form of therapy for me. The fact that I’m in therapy is irrelevant. What interests me about art making is that it has things to say that are beyond the self. Art says things about the human condition and the human psyche. I think that is one of the functions of cultural practice, and one of the functions of media. You don’t have to make politically overt work to be a political artist, or to have a political position or a cultural awareness. I do think that my work has a very strong political message on some level.

KS: Is it that your work is political in ways that aren’t traditionally defined as political in filmmaking?

DL: Do you mean like Nicaragua political?

KS: Like Nicaragua political, or like any effort to make the world a better place, or represent the underrepresented in artistic practice, for instance. Are you suggesting another way of thinking about the political?

DL: What comes to mind is the body politic: articulating something through the body and through action, be it live, or a recorded, or mediated action. What that provokes has social implications. The action says something about the impact of larger political ideas on the bodyÑon my body. The body is what we have to use as a tool to express our discomfort, or our distaste or unhappiness. For me it has very significant meaning when people choose an art practice over the civil service or a government job in Ottawa. I feel like artists have a lot of things to do, and a lot of responsibility. I guess I used the word political when we started talking about this because I feel like there are lots of important decisions that we make when we decide to be an artist for real, for life.

KS: Do you think there is a future for experimental film practice?

DL: Sure. People will remain attached to an experimental filmmaking practice for as long as they possibly can. If they care about it they will do it.

KS: Even though the labs are closing?

DL: Sure, yes. Little undergrounds will form, and people will send their stuff to Boulder Colorado, or wherever the hell they have to send it. Maybe Deluxe won’t exist, but Steve Sanguedolce will process film for you in his basement, or somebody will be doing it somewhere. As long as people have cameras and film they will make experimental films. It doesn’t matter where the hell they get it processed.

KS: What do you make of the current fascination with low-tech and hand processed film?

DL: I think the fascination probably says something about what we need socially or culturally in this country right now. I think self-sufficiency is one of those needs. A lot of people have suffered enormous crises of confidence with the influence of major technologies on image making. I haven’t got a fucking G4, and I don’t want one. That doesn’t mean I don’t want e-mail, and I’m not a complete Luddite, but I feel like there are lots of ways to do things. These heavy-duty processes are causing people to feel like they can’t make work. There is an attraction to accessibility. I think people will always be attracted to things that are raw, and that openly show the hand of the maker. Not everybody, but those who are always will be.