Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Art Space Talk: Michael Betancourt

Michael Betancourt, an avant-garde film maker, is one of a handful of artists leading the experiment film movement in South Florida -- and across the United States. Michael has been making movies for over 15 years and has exhibited in places such as Tampa's Ybor Film Festival; Plugged-In: New & Electronic Media at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood; Cinematheque's Views from the Underground in Miami Beach; The Athens Video Art Festival; Short Cuts Cologne 8; and been shown in contemporary art museums such as The Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami, The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and The Painted Bride. Wildside Press published his book, Structuring Time: Notes on Making Movies, in 2004. His writings have appeared in Ctheory, Semiotica, and Leonardo, among others.

Spook: The Ghost of Slavery Past was part of the Art Basel Miami Beach 2003 exhibit Sites-Miami. Lummus Park, the location of Sites-Miami, includes a long building that was a slave quarters. This overshadows all the later uses of the building as a tea house and its use haunts the site because until recently, the building was misidentified as "Fort Dallas."

Brian Sherwin: Michael, you studied under film historian William Rothman. What can you tell our readers about that experience? What can you tell us about your academic background in general?

Michael Betancourt: William Rothman made the experience useful--nothing could be taken for granted. The underling assumptions about how to approach video art, (or experimental film), that would normally define this kind of academic study were in question, forcing me to arrive at a stronger foundation for my thinking than I would have developed studying this subject with someone who accepted the field's assumptions and self-definitions. I doubt I would approach the question of motion images the way I do. Rothman forced all his students essentially to re-invent the field. The parameters I arrived at did not match the ones he had, so it prompted a continuous discussion while I was there.

As an undergraduate I studied film and video at Temple University, reading everything that was even remotely connected to either subject, whether technical, historical or aesthetic. Then I went to graduate school for an MA in Film Studies at the University of Miami in Florida, staying on to earn an interdisciplinary Ph.D. that mainly focused on art history and history, but included some psychology, philosophy of art and physics. The initial project and the one I finally finished with were two very different things.
Happy People is a site-specific media installation designed to be placed inside a hotel room. The piece consists of three parts, and is designed to be a low-impact intervention in the space of the room. With so much emphasis on being happy these days, sooner or later we meet the Happy People. They're happy because they're taking prescription drugs that make them happy. It hides their depression about their lives. The space these Happy People inhabit isn't really theirs, it's just borrowed. But don't worry, be happy! They are.

BS: Michael, in your statement you state, "I work from the position of artist-as-theorist / researcher." You go on to say that your work has three interlocking aspects-- the theoretical, the experimental, and the historical. Can you go into further detail about the thoughts behind your work and what you are striving to achieve?

MB: I'm just trying to be accurate. I think it's important to start with the fact that I am an empiricist: my interests begin with those things that are physically observable and can be actually identified and described as physical phenomena. There's a lot of theory-type work out there that really doesn't / can't meet those criteria, and as a result the "discoveries" produced by these theories actually are partially just rhetorical positions that don't actually lead to the kinds of things that my work is addressing.

Consider the simple question of motion which we see. Obviously there are at least two types: eminent and apparent. With imminent motion, you see a ball hurtling through space towards your head, it is going to hit you unless you do something to prevent it, but with apparent motion, the ball can't hit you because the ball isn't really there. But we see the motion just the same in a movie as we do when it's an actual ball. If we choose to consider this from the seventeenth century perspective of "persistence of vision" the motion happens in the eye--the eye is what does the thinking about the movement! And we know this isn't true. The human eye doesn't work like that; it's a cognitive function of the brain. It sounds obvious, but this isn't the way this basic question is typically answered. Instead, we get the seventeenth century answer.

So if we start with the cognitive approach to the issue of motion, then some very odd things happen to how we look at movies--we suddenly need to consider that under certain circumstances paintings need to be thought about in the same way, and exhibiting some of the same features, as motion pictures. I had that idea in 1997, following my own experiments with PhotoShop and animation, but it took me a long time to be able to explain this recognition coherently. Some French neuro-psychologists devised an experiment* testing my ideas about motion in paintings in 2005, and their experiment suggests my ideas are valid enough to warrant further investigation.

The empirical basis makes this type of testing possible, even though my own experiments that lead-in and elaborate upon my own theories tend to be more aesthetic in nature; under no circumstances do I think I'm doing science with my work (I would be delusional to think so). I take the parts of my research that are generally applicable and I use them as a guide for writing essays that I then try to get published like any other academic in peer-reviewed journals. Most of this writing sees print.

It's in the art-aspects that the historical dimensions become most evident. Art, however you want to define it, depends on its history for its own existence, and I think I'm like a lot of people in that I look at history as a matrix or field of potentials, forms and meanings that enable the creation of work that has the potential to be meaningful for someone else, and isn't just an exercise in solipsism.

I'm not certain that I am looking to achieve anything in particular. A lot of the questions I'm focused on are very esoteric. Each movie is directly tied to specific, immediate interests and I'm not trying to do more with it than answer whatever it is I'm concerned with right then. Often its nothing more than devising a specific series of frameworks and seeing how they work--if they can carry all the ideas I try to make them carry. Something this makes an OK movie, sometimes it doesn't.

(*Space and motion perception evoked by the painting "Study of a dog" of Francis Bacon, Zoï Kapoula and Louis-José Lestocart, intellectica 2006/2, n° 44: Systèmes d’aide: Enjeux pour les technologies cognitives, pp. 215-226.)
Radio-Activity takes its title from the sounds used on the soundtrack: the noises were created from telemetry sent back to Earth by deep-space probes, primarily Cassini while on it’s way to Saturn (all these sounds are courtesy of Dr. Donald Gurnett, The University of Iowa). These sounds from space provided the impetus for the imagery. Radio-Activity is literally based around the activity of radios, radio-telescopes and broader spectrum beyond human sight.

BS: So do you take the artist-as-theorist and researcher stance with every piece that you create-- be it an installation or movie?

MB: Yes. It's the only way I've been able to establish for myself that would allow me to continue working. Ideas are cheap. I'm certain that at any given moment the same idea is being developed and elaborated upon by different artists who don't otherwise know each other and may not even be using the same medium. The key issue from my perspective isn't the idea so much as its elaboration. That requires the establishment of a working framework. If I don't know what the result will necessarily be in advance, I'm free to experiment with multiple, contradictory approaches and decide to use the ones I like best. Still very subjective, but grounded in logic and open to happenstance.

BS: Michael, you have exhibited your movies, site-specific installations, and non-traditional art forms in unseen, unusual, or public spaces since 1992. You began producing guerilla interventions in public spaces in 1996 with The TrueLife Ad Campaign, a project that assumed the form of a newspaper ad. Since then, you have produced a series of interventions in public spaces designed to provoke an active engagement with the viewer. Can you discuss your work in general and how it has developed since those early years?

MB: I've found it useful to think of my work as being derived from underlying frameworks, and in these a priori system that make the works. If anything, what has happened is these frameworks have become progressively more explicit and consciously constructed.
My earliest works were photographs I made in the darkroom using only the developing chemicals and light, and these pictures were so abstract that it was difficult for a lot of the people I showed them to to accept that they were photographs. I didn't make very many, no more than 30 or 40, because they were too easy once I figured out the technique.
Like Duchamp with his ready-mades, I decided to impose a limit from the start. When I reached it, I stopped making them. I think they established the parameters for the first public works by taking the expectations of what we're seeing and then questioning that expectation itself.

The TrueLife Ad Campaign was an actual ad campaign for an imaginary company whose sales-pitch modeled used car ads, but sold lifestyles. It was funny, which I liked, since the comedy helped disguise the critique. It registered on several levels simultaneously, and invisibly merged with the papers I ran it in. Unsigned as an artwork, it was simply an incongruous insertion into the normal ad space of the newspapers. Like the Aesthetic Hazard tape or my other guerilla projects, it subverts an established form's authority to suggest other types of engagement are possible.

The recognition that part of what interests my work is the interrogation of our expectations was a major transition for me, a qualitative shift from works being done as a student that followed established guidelines to ones that specifically recognized the guidelines and then used them to construct some other, ulterior experience, was probably the first realization that my work is empirically engaged with we the viewers. Being able to simultaneously meet and violate specific expectations was the point of works like TrueLife.

My more recent work has shifted its lines of inquiry almost from one work to the next. My 20-minute movie Year plays with the ambiguities of specific dates, personal biographies, and major historical events and how they will overlap. The decision to make it in 3D, using the chromadepth technology, is a further doubling of this ambiguity since the spatial arrangement of the 2D and 3D versions aren't entirely identical (or even compatible).
Telemetry grew from the soundtrack source materials--sounds created from actual NASA telemetry sent back by Cassini (among other missions)--but at the same time, the organization of alpha to omega recalls Christian theology as much as scientific description. Eigen employs a vocabulary of shapes defined in both visual music and the scientific studies of hallucinogens by the German Heinrich Kluver in the 1930s, offering a set of contradictory approaches to the same visionary experience. These are the same types of ambiguities and complexities incipient in TrueLife, but elaborated in very different ways.
Telemetry is a hybrid work of documentary and visual music, using actual telemetry from NASA’s Cassini mission that Dr. Donald Gurnett, University of Iowa, has converted into sound. These "noises" from space are documents of electromagnetic radiation encountered en route to Saturn. Telemetry takes these sounds as the source for its score.

BS: Using psychological studies of motion perception, you have argued that the motion seen in motion pictures is identical to the motion seen in paintings. You term this second type painterly motion and argue that both kinds are invented by the subjective viewer. Can you go into further detail about this?

MB: Any motion we see is something that our brains are creating from their engagement with the stimulus of the outside world. Because everything we experience is also at some basic level a matter of pure thought, from a cognitive viewpoint all motion is essentially the same: a matter of interpretation.

Painterly motion appears in nearly all historical paintings by artists fully trained by the academies in Europe. There are only a few artists in the Modern era who did anything genuinely new with this academic technique; Francis Bacon is probably the strongest example. Painterly motion is simply this--it is a conscious technique where the artist has composed the figure so that it includes visual dislocations of the body that a viewer interprets as motion when the eyes move around the canvas. The different positions of the body are understood as movements by the depicted subject rather than as deformities.
Even in Bacon's work, the distortions can easily be seen as extreme contortions (in fact, they often are described in exactly this violent manner) and signs of painful, twisting movement. To interpret these transformations in this way, we must have some internalized framework that is making these pictures cohere into recognizable form--the apparent motion is the result of this forced coherence. It is purely interpretive and likely uses the same parts of our brains as physically immanent motion does.

BS: Michael, it is my understanding that you are a curator at the Sioux City Art Center. The center has a history dating back to the 1930s. Would you like to tell us about the Center and how your position has inspired you?

MB: I try to keep my work as a movie maker discrete and separate from my work as a curator at the art center. The demands made by one are antithetical to the other. In a way, it's good that I am something other than an artist. When it comes to making my own work, being a curator employed in a museum is distinctly in opposition to being an artist. The curatorial demands in such a setting are more tightly constrained than they are for either an artist who occasionally curates or for an independent curator who is also an artist.

BS: Michael, based on what I've read it would seem that you have a great knowledge about the history of visual music technologies. You have edited five books about the subject. At what point did you gain interest in the history of visual music technologies? What captivated you about the subject?

MB: I'm not certain I would agree that I have a great knowledge. There are a few artists I have studied and written on, but this is a large field and there are plenty of other people who know a great deal more than I do. I've been interested in visual music and color organs since I first encountered them as an undergraduate in 1990. What interested me about it was that I'd been seeing these ideas my whole life all around me, but didn't have enough history to see the relationships between Light shows at nightclubs and music videos and abstract paintings. (The contemporary practice of VJing is the most recent incarnation of an underlying idea that is very old.)
One of the things I realized in doing graduate work was that there's a great lack of readily available, primary sources for these early technological artists whose work is directly analogous to that of contemporary artists. So I decided to make what information I had located available in the hope it would enable others to do stuff. Too often what gives a specialist "power" in a field is a monopoly on information.
My publishing breaks down into: anthologies of technology designs (patents); reprints of published materials by Thomas Wilfred and A. Wallace Rimington; and my own original research which includes a brief historical survey of a visual music group called "Lumonics" that was active in San Diego and South Florida, and an attempt to understand the "abstract films" created by Mary Hallock-Greenewalt. I have also written a few other papers given as talks at conferences or as a guest speaker that are directed at a broader, interested audience. Since I'm not at a university begging for tenure, I have more freedom with what to research and write.

Understanding these artists works requires a familiarity with the technologies they created to present their aesthetics. Since the devices, when they still exist, aren't readily accessible, understanding what the art actually was like can be a little like trying to figure out what a computer does by looking at a power cord. Technology makes the aesthetic into a physically manifest form. There is a very real connection between what a Clavilux can do and the aesthetic Wilfred believed in; the same is true of Hallock-Greenewalt.
In their writings these two artists can seem very much alike at times, especially when considering the relationship between projections and architecture, but this would be a terrible mistake. Their machineries make the differences very explicit and show how much their aesthetics are utterly incompatible. But these devices are first and foremost gadgets, and gadgets are almost by definition interesting.
All of these technologies were created with a wide range of purposes in mind, ranging from the demonstration of a deeply incorrect idea about the nature of light and the universe to the desire to make money by adding something visual to radio (at about the same time chronologically television was being developed capable of being broadcast to a large audience in their homes). The great burst of these technologies in the early decades of the twentieth century is in itself a curious event.
Eigenkunst, part two of Eigen: the theory of self-generation

BS: As mentioned, in the course of your research, you discovered the oldest surviving hand-painted abstract films, done in 1916 by inventor and artist Mary Hallock-Greenewalt. You also are interested in the work of Thomas Wilfred and Oskar Fischinger. Would you say that you have gained insight into your own work by viewing these images from the past?

MB: No. That's the short answer. The longer one is a very specialized and qualified "yes." My historical research into visual music technologies has been more influential on my process of working than on the works I make. Again, this is the empirical factor. It takes a leap of imagination to reanimate devices that are only reconstructed from diagrams, and must be focused through other artists' writings.
What happened in my own work was I started making notes about the motion image medium itself--its physical parameters, the structural supports that recurred independent of who was making the work, what might be called centers of attraction. These coalesced for me when I combined them with the broader history of experimental film practice and realized there was a direct and explicit relationship between Tony Conrad pickling, frying and otherwise "processing" films in unorthodox ways and the work being done by the Russians that resulted in montage.
Each was focusing on a different aspect of the physically system: Conrad was attacking the physical Base of the image, while the Russians were focusing on the idea of Editing. In each case, these artists were elevating one physical parameter above all others as the site for their investigations. This recognition provided an empirical foundation, and I was able to identify other centers of attraction and came up with a listing: Camera, Base, Image, Editing, Projector, Screen and Sound. This gave me a meta-framework that offered an organizational principle for my own thinking. This is the source of the conceptual framework that is at the center of all my work.

BS: Do you have any concerns about how these works are protected for future generations?

MB: I don't think this is really something any artist (or historian) can reasonably worry about. You do what you can to protect things, but time and entropy will force some accommodations that over time accumulate and obscure what you're trying to protect. Leonardo's Last Supper is an excellent object lesson in this fact. All preservation attempts are necessarily limited and provisional. In the end, the only things that will survive are those that others feel are worth keeping--and these decisions can be completely irrational, random, and flawed.
Important works get lost, minor or insignificant works survive and become significant masterworks. It is tempting as a historian to say we should save everything, but this is simply silly because it is so impractical. The resulting archive would be identical to the world it describes, and the solution--save everything--would create a situation many times worse than the one we have lived with for centuries.
Much of what makes history interesting is not what survives, but the reasons for its survival; the ways the present is so completely a product of not just the immediate past but decisions made and then ratified as "truth" even though that truth might not be true at all. The persistence of vision idea is a great example of this continuity between the present and the past.

BS: Speaking of future generations.... perhaps you can give our readers some insight into the direction your work will take you next? Are you working on anything at this time? Do you have any plans that you can reveal at this time?

MB: A while back a band in Chicago called "The Poison Arrows" performed a live score for one of my films. I've been working on a collaborative project with them which I'm finishing up right now. I'm also in the process of expanding and revising my book from 2004, Structuring Time. Right now is much more a moment of assessment and organization before starting any really large, new projects.

I have some ideas about things to work on, but nothing has solidified as of yet since I'm still wrapping things up on some older work that I've been revising on VJ and live performance. The relationship between physical direct film animation and computers has also got me thinking. . . .

You can learn more about Michael Betancourt by visiting his website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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