Comment: Luther Price and the politics of appropriation
Luther Price’s work is difficult, to say the least. Chairing the post-screening Q&A session on Friday 25 May, Assistant Director of LUX Mike Sperlinger characterised Price’s renegade attitude towards his chosen medium (both 8mm and 16mm film) as one that goes against the grain, doing things “one shouldn’t do” with film. This attitude is largely evidenced in Price’s physical relationship with film. Firstly, there’s the artist’s method of material mutilation: defacing the celluloid surface of his films with paint, scraping off the soundtrack or, with his Garden series, burying film reels in his back yard as rotting compost, so the abstract effects of bacterial mould decompose the celluloid strip and its images over time.
Price’s second act of rebellion is to deliver an intervention into the screening environment in which people sit. His preference for the projector to be present in the space, fortuitously permitted due to screening conditions at the ICA, insists upon a heightened awareness of moving image technology, with the intention to interrupt the (presumably) passive consumption of the analogue image by the viewer. As Sperlinger noted, Price’s audience is not only confronted with the “ecstatic violence” of these hand-made films, but also the physicality of film as an object, as it clacks through the gate. This is a machine that has its own unique sound, aesthetic and substance. Privileging the role of mechanical apparatus over the engendering of an illusionary viewing experience is a key element in Price’s abrasive aesthetic; the incessant drill of exposed sprocket holes running through the machine elicits a bone shuddering anti-soundtrack. The artist’s demands the viewer to not only perceive the projection of his films, but also feel its semiotic and aural affects through the core sensory faculties of our very own bodies.
Many other experimental moving image artists of Price’s generation, and earlier, share formal concerns for facilitating an anti-illusory experience, ensuring the viewer is conscious of the technology and artifice of film itself. In his interview with Thomas Morgan Evans, Light Industry’s Ed Halter posed comparisons between Price and“structural-materialism [among certain London filmmakers in the 1970s]”, and offered Lis Rhodes as an example. Halter’s co-director Thomas Beard also made comparisons with Stan Brakhage during the post-screening Q&A. But the contextual framing, representation and curating of Luther Price’s work at the LUX / ICA Moving Image Biennial invites speculation over intentionality – both that of the curators’ and the artist’s.
The hermetic nature of Price’s films – a product of their enduring insistence of non-narrative structure and explicit abstraction – encourages a reductive reading to take place. The artist’s biography, his ‘cottage industry’ methodology, is seen as the primary component of his practice, or at least appears presented as such by Light Industry. The physical processes of the film-making – working from a small lab in his domestic home, cutting and processing films “for less than $10” – engenders a fetishisation of Price’s handcrafted aesthetic, while also prioritising the degraded materiality of his films to emerge as the primary point of conceptual interest. Such framing supersedes the need to address the problematic latent visual content of the film, his appropriated yet aleatory “parent” material, as phrased by Beard.
As an aesthetic experience, the selection of films are, for the most part, visually spectacular, if not also a grueling endurance test of spectral abstraction and extreme sound. The colour frames in Turbulant Blue (2006) and the monochrome, abstract skeins of Inkblot No. 1 (2007) offer pictorial depth. Leaning over to whisper an aside mid-screening, my co-writer Thomas offered a comparison between the latter film and Guernica, as if Picasso’s grayscale canvas had been grabbed by both hands and shaken up to produce a chaotic, fluid mess of fissured lines and cracks. Singing Biscotts (2007) changes tempo through a meditative portrait of a gospel choir, where melody dilutes filmic repetition. But through his specific appropriation of ‘found’ material, it is worth foregrounding that Price does indeed make conscious thematic decisions: murky ethnographic imagery momentarily surfaces in After the Garden: Dusty Ricket (2007); shadows of female nudity punctuate Inkblot No. 44: Aqua Woman (2009); contrived melodrama is depicted in the conversely narrative-based A Patch of Green (2004). Significantly out of sync with the preceding films, the programme finale comes in the form of a 16mm projection where the image is removed. Light Industry chose to end the programme with Shelly Winters (2010), a 16mm film containing only the soundtrack, in which testimonies of “battered women” give verbal accounts of intense physical abuse suffered at the hands of their male partners.
As Thomas noted following a preview of the films on Friday, “Tied to the speed of projection, these films cannot help but violate the eye”. But these films are punishing. They test the physiological capability of the audience. In unpacking Price’s practice in the post-screening Q&A, Light Industry were quick to describe the film in terms of the body, where celluloid scraps are precisely cut open and stitched together, as if undergoing a surgery. Alluding to the corporeal quality to the film – the film as a body – invites connotations of editorial processes, where images are subject to addition, subtraction and change. The work is read through life cycles: redundant imagery is revived through editorial operations. But Light Industry appeared to be reluctant to take account of Price’s appropriation of imagery from other bodies. The question of pornographic footage in Price’s films from the 1980s, for example, was not only excluded in this curated programme (that Halter points out is a curatorship of himself, Beard and Price), but was also sidestepped by both curators in the public Q&A. This absence of debate made me wonder if there is a certain objectification of the subjects (re)presented in Price’s appropriated ‘parent material’.
Light Industry insist, and were careful to emphatically reiterate in the Q&A, that Price is no more interested in pornography than as he is to ethnography. As circumstantial subjects that are merely ‘found’ on the surfaces of celluloid, these apparently incidental images are the blank canvas upon which Price subsequently exerts a series of violations, manipulations and, albeit at times beautiful, abstract aesthetic. But in receiving these images as a viewer, in being subjected to the incessant physicality of Price’s films for over 80 minutes, one must consider, firstly, the ethics of appropriation, and secondly, how Price’s latent subject matter is occluded by a curatorial framing process. In these instances, how should one read or attempt to access these other phantom bodies and subjectivities that, whether fictional or documentary, are relentlessly incorporated into Price’s ‘chance’ 16mm exquisite corpses?
Attempting to reconcile the ethics of appropriation deployed across Price’s prolific practice must be left somewhat incomplete, particularly in the context of the biennial in which Price’s work is represented only by a singular 80 minute programme screened on two separate occasions. The practical limitations of screenings naturally omit a fuller range of material from the artist’s career. But Price is also physically absent here; he is not present at the screenings to vouch for the intentionality of his films. Absences such as these culminate in the positing of a critical vacuum, compounded by the omissions of Price’s curators who fail to fully account for the base content of the work at hand. By attempting to swerve criticism through disavowal of latent exploitation, by covering the chinks in their conceptual amour, Light Industry’s gaps in the representation of Luther Price opens up a chasm for further scrutiny, diverting attention away from Price himself, to instead expose a deficient curatorial framework.
Significantly, the notion of appropriating “parent material” is twofold, here: present in the base celluloid of Price’s films, and also reflected in the proposed relation between the elevated artist for review, as well as his curators. Coming in with a incomplete lexicon with which to validate or at least substantiate the artist and his practice, Light Industry indeed risk appearing to treat Price as their own “parent material”, using his films as an aesthetic primer onto which their own curatorial agenda can be traced.
A Reply to Amy Budd
June 1, 2012 · by Ed Halter
I’d like to offer some response on behalf of both Thomas Beard and myself, to Amy Budd’s editorial. In general, I think it’s wonderful that editor Isla Leaver-Yap has published a piece from one of her writers that is critical of a Biennial screening, and so I do want to applaud that attempt to create something more than the normal celebratory discourse that one finds within the art world, particularly in commissioned writing.
However, I was disappointed by Budd’s negligence of standard journalistic practice and her poorly constructed argumentation, which, in the end, leaves me perplexed at what she’s ultimately trying to say. This piece would have benefitted greatly from some fact-checking and a second draft, and I don’t believe the quick turnaround that the Live Journal format requires is enough of an excuse. All published writing about an event becomes a de facto record, and so the writer needs to understand the ethical dimension of her role, taking particularly seriously the responsibility to report the facts correctly. I would have been deeply embarrassed to publish something with so many factual errors that could have easily been corrected with just a few questions to the organisers from LUX, the ICA, or the curators under consideration.
After Budd’s piece was first published online, I sent an email to Leaver-Yap noting a number of the errors – Budd’s original misspelling of “Brakhage,” for example, or the misrepresentation of Price’s Turbulant Blue as a painted film, which indicates Budd’s carelessness in her note-taking – and these two mistakes were later edited out. Budd also quotes Mike Sperlinger as saying that Price does things “one shouldn’t do” with film, when in fact it was I who said this.
More egregiously, Budd states in her second paragraph that Price has a “preference for the projector to be present in the space”. However, this simply isn’t the case. Neither in our public statements during the two Q&A sessions at the Biennial nor in any written materials we provided did we say Price prefers the projector to be present on the theatre floor. In fact, Price’s films were projected from the booth in the ICA’s smaller film theatre the next day for the second screening. Following this gaffe, Budd then goes on to say it is Price’s “intention to interrupt the (presumably) passive consumption of the analogue image by the viewer”. Of course, as an aspiring critic, she may wish to speculate that this is Price’s intention, but she should present this view as her own theory, since this not something we indicated in interviews, written statements or our public Q&A sessions, nor information she could have found from any other source available. I offered my own interpretation of the effects of having the projector on the floor in my interview with Thomas Morgan Evans, published two days earlier on the Biennial’s Live Journal, and repeated this interpretation during the Q&A. In neither forum did I suggest this was the artist’s intention for the work; I think I am correct in assuming that a normally attentive reader would have read my statements as such. Again, basic fact-checking would have caught this mistake, but instead it now serves as the leading point of an entire paragraph of Budd’s argument.
For the rest of her editorial, Budd goes on to say, “the physical processes of filmmaking…engenders a fetishization of Price’s handcrafted aesthetic”. There’s a sloppiness in the subject-verb construction here, since I don’t think Budd means to say that the “physical processes” themselves would “engender a fetishization” (as if automatically!) but the real problem here is the clichéd use of “fetishization,” which I’m a bit baffled by. What kind of fetishization? Marxist? Freudian? Anthropological? I would guess she really means this in less specific sense, trying to say that we as curators paid an inordinate or even irrational amount of attention to the physical processes Price uses to create his work. Well, this is certainly a matter of opinion, but I feel she would do well to forgo the use of dramatic but vague theoretical buzzwords and try to state her ideas more concretely in the future. As far as Thomas Beard and I were concerned, our goal was to communicate to the viewers how these films were made, since their process of production differs so greatly from the manner in which films are normally constructed, and we feel the nature of their making to be significant – this is a far from unusual way to speak about art work.
Later, Budd makes pains to point out what she deems “the problematic latent visual content of the film, his appropriated yet aleatory ‘parent’ material”. She states, “one must consider [author’s stress], firstly, the ethics of appropriation, and secondly, how Price’s latent subject matter is occluded by a curatorial framing process.” She concludes with a mention of the “latent exploitation” she thinks might be found in Price’s work. These are perhaps the most confusing statements of all, since “latent” normally means that something is present but unseen, or more specifically, inherent but not yet expressed. So “latent visual content” in this context seems self-contradictory – are there unseen visual elements in Price’s films? Subject matter that’s there, but does not in any way come visibly to the surface? And if there is subject matter we can’t see, how can it be exploitative? “Latent visual content” could only mean something like an undeveloped photographic negative; the images in Price’s films are at times obscured, erased, or abstracted, but they are not latent. What “latent subject matter” or “latent exploitation” would be is anyone’s guess. If she is using this term metaphorically, then it’s not clear what she means by it.
Even if we ignore her repeated misuse of the term “latent,” Budd still raises a question and then fails to answer it. What, exactly, is exploitative about the subject matter that we do see? She asks, “How should one read or attempt to access these other phantom bodies and subjectivities that, whether fictional or documentary, are relentlessly incorporated into Price’s ‘chance’ 16mm exquisite corpses?” but then does not attempt any such analysis herself. She points out a few images – the anthropological footage used in Dusty Ricketts, the “shadows of female nudity” in Inkblot #44: Aqua Woman – but fails to offer any theories about why or how these images would be exploitative or would raise ethical concerns. If “one must consider…the ethics of appropriation” then why doesn’t Budd follow her own directive and do so?
The most Budd offers is that “the absence of debate made me wonder if there is a certain objectification of the subjects (re)presented in Price’s appropriated ‘parent’ material,” but she never gets beyond this wondering. Her main complaint seems to be that we didn’t present a reading of the work she would liked to have heard. I feel her time as a writer would have been better spent offering her own analysis of the material. The ethics of using appropriated documentary film footage, either by Price or in general, might be something interesting to discuss. Yet Budd decides instead to leave the reader hanging, invoking this potentially complex idea just long enough for finger-wagging purposes, then dropping it before she says anything substantial regarding what she thinks.
From Budd’s account, one would never know we did, in fact, address the content of his films in our presentations, though we didn’t frame our reading in terms of exploitation or ethics. Since I happened to record both Q&A sessions, I listened to the first one again and transcribed a few things. At one point in the discussion, I stated the following:
For him, the film and body are intimately connected […] Thematically, his work is obviously also about the body, about families and about life cycles, and about living and dying. All those things that happen to bodies. So the formal concerns of the film material, and the thematic ideas that are in the sound and image, are things that are working together.
Budd paraphrases something else one of us said in the Q&A: that, in her words, “Price is no more interested in pornography than as he is to ethnography.” (Copy editing aside: “as he is to”? I think one would be interested “in” pornography rather than “to” pornography.) Here, she misconstrues a statement made by my colleague Thomas Beard. This was in response to a question by Stuart Comer, who asked why we didn’t include any of the work Price has made with pornography. As I mentioned in the discussion, we had planned to include one work that featured pornography, but at the last minute it was unavailable, and so we switched it with another. Quoting from my audio file of the discussion, what Thomas actually said was this:
It’s not so much the case that Luther is interested in porn per se. In the same way that, with the Garden films, he’s not really interested in, say, ethnography as a form, so much as it is that these are kinds of junked material, things that are orphaned. Of course, there are other reasons why he would be dealing with pornography as a kind of found footage.
I took Thomas’s statement to mean Price isn’t a filmmaker particularly concerned with pornography any more than he is with other found materials—they’re simply one kind of film among many that he uses, all of which constitute the motley 20th-century archive that is 16mm junked footage. Therefore, the fact that we didn’t show any films with pornography in them wasn’t a major impediment to understanding Price’s recent work as a whole. In the discussion, I said “it’s just one thing he does,” and when planning the shows, “he wasn’t intent that it needed to be here or not”. I again stressed that, for the artist, pornography isn’t any more central to his work than other kinds of footage he uses. This isn’t to say that the use of pornography isn’t significant to his work. Since Luther is an openly queer artist and has been since the beginning of his work in the 1980s, it would be naive to assume that there isn’t a political dimension in his use of explicit images of gay sex in his films. At the same time, he doesn’t feel that his work can be reduced just to this aspect of it, and Thomas and I agree with this.
Had we been able to do a number of programs, as we did at the recent Whitney Biennial, we could have shown a much wider range of works by Price, but even our three Whitney programs couldn’t show everything. At the ICA, we were happy to provide a single-program sampling of some of the things he’s been doing in the last decade. It simply wouldn’t have been possible to cover all that he’s done. As it stands, one could read Budd’s editorial as a complaint about the exploitative nature of a film she’s never seen, and wasn’t included in the program, which would be a particularly strange kind of criticism!
The final aspect of Budd’s polemic I’d like to address is her insistence that Thomas and I were “covering the chinks in [our] conceptual armour” based on what we said in a ten-minute, improvised Q&A session, that we were therefore “using his films as an aesthetic primer onto which [our] own curatorial agenda can be traced,” and that our “gaps in the representation of Luther Price opens up a chasm for further scrutiny, diverting attention away from Price himself, to instead expose a deficient curatorial framework”. It’s hard to take these charges seriously, given that she’s largely basing her culminating argument on part of a single answer uttered at one screening, and fails to take into account anything said at the second session, or in our written materials. She also notes, “Price is physically absent here” but had she followed up and gone to the second screening to hear what we discussed then—or at the very least took the time to inquire – she would have learned that Price wasn’t in attendance because he does not currently own a passport, and therefore can’t go overseas. This is due to the fact that he travelled to Nicaragua on a cultural exchange mission during the US-backed war in the 1980s. Nearly shot to death by machine gun fire, he was flown back to the States by the US government for an operation that saved his life; afterwards, that same government charged him $5,000 for this service. Until he pays it and over 25 years of interest accrued on the bill, his passport won’t be released to him.
All Budd’s talk of “armour” and “agendas” sounds very exciting and conspiratorial, but I’m afraid we think about what we did in more practical terms: bringing an artist’s films to London that otherwise couldn’t have been screened there, and offering a critical account of the work as we see it. I agree Price’s work is rich with possible meanings that were not exhausted by our discussion, and there is much more that could and should be said about it. I would have rather read more of what Budd thought the content of the films might signify, rather than be subjected to an ad hominem attack on our supposed intentions as curators, posed by a writer who didn’t even bother to get her facts straight or follow through on her own ideas.