Q&A with Ed Halter: The films of Luther Price
Ed Halter is the co-founder of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York. Between 1995 and 2005, Halter programmed the New York Underground Film Festival, and he has curated screenings and exhibitions at Artists Space, BAM, the Flaherty Film Seminar, the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, Participant Inc, and Tate Modern. He recently co-curated the film programme at this year’s Whitney Biennial. Halter is currently writing a critical history of contemporary experimental cinema in America. For Light Industry’s curated screening, Thomas Beard and Ed Halter present the works by Luther Price. I met with Halter to ask about Price’s working practice. Following the interpretations I made in my recent piece on Price and Warhol’s abstraction, I began by asking if there are any concrete links between Warhol’s work and Price’s practice.
ED HALTER: There are many radical differences between Warhol and Price’s practices. Firstly, Warhol was a social filmmaker. His films were made with other people, the people around him. Even when Price made films with people, it was usually himself, as a performer. Nowadays, he works alone at home, in the studio. Also, almost none of Price’s recent 16mm work contains original footage shot by him—it’s all composed from appropriated footage.
THOMAS MORGAN EVANS: There is a friction, then, in Price’s work between the work’s impact, its turbulence and volume, and idea of Price as an introvert who works alone as if in opposition to cinema’s spectacle.
EH: That’s true. Price works on a film for weeks and weeks. In Inkblot #1, there are so many layers. When you hear people describe the work as a painted film, you imagine it as something relatively simple, but what he does is paint, then scrape it off and repaint. You can see the layers of time that have created the object or, in this case, the film itself as a kind of object. You’re always aware there is a strip of film going through the projector. It’s not animation, exactly — he’s not working on the level of the frame; he’s working on the level of the strip. You feel the motion of the strip and that’s what is interesting about his films. When I first saw those painted films, I took 16mm projectors up to Boston to visit Price because he didn’t have one at that time. He produced many of these films without actually watching them – he just kept making them. I got there and he said, “Let’s watch some.” So when we watched Inkblot #1, for example, he had never seen it projected until that point. With some of them we watched for the first time he told me, “You know what, that doesn’t work,” so he wouldn’t want to show it. He hasn’t shown all the Inkblots. Some of them, like Inkblot #44 Aqua Woman, he made a few edits but not as many as you might think.
TME: How is his studio set up when he works on the film at first? I imagine, when working directly on such a small format, one has to be careful.
EH: Price works on a light box with film winders. He saves all the artefacts from the making of the films meticulously. His practice is intensely careful. In his studio, everything is in its place, he’s extremely precise. And yet with that precision comes a certain amount of letting go. To an extent, there is some aleatory aspect to the work. He leaves some aspects to chance, but within parameters and systems of working he’s devised for himself.
TME: Well, perhaps there is a relationship to Warhol, with these elements of contingency?
EH: Yes, that’s true.
TME: What do you think that means for an audience watching films whose projected image lies almost outside of the artist’s original intention, where there is no moment akin to the artist stepping back from the easel to look?
EH: I wouldn’t say his work is outside of his intention. Keep in mind that they were very precisely and carefully created, and there is a process of selection before we exhibit them, and in some cases further editing after he’s seen them for the first time. We’re not talking at all about pure chance operations here. But certainly, he can’t control everything as precisely as, say, one could with digital editing. The physical object imposes its own logic at times.
TME: So you collaborate with Price in the process of curatorship?
EH: He wants to be involved in the selection and running order of the films we screen. So curatorially-speaking, you could say that this programme was through a conversation between Thomas, myself and Luther. Not every artist works that way.
TME: The order pertains to a logic, then? These films are so visceral. They are doing something to you, and the order of viewing necessarily becomes part of it.
EH: Yeah, they are aggressive, but they are also about giving a heightened awareness of the projection and the working of the machine. Due to technical reasons at the ICA, the projectors are set up within the cinema auditorium, which is fortuitous. It means you are never oblivious to them, never escaping into a pure image-world. Rather, you share the space with the machine. It relates to what happened with structural-materialism [among certain London filmmakers in the 1970s], though that work didn’t always share the same element of emotion evident in Price’s work. Lis Rhodes’ work from that time is similar, perhaps.
TME: Can we say that there is a relationship to the sculptural or to ‘sculptural film’?
EH: Price originally trained as a sculptor. He talks about how this recent work is a way to get back to sculpture, which is funny because you want to associate these films with painting. But with the focus on the projector, the work emphasises this is not an image; it’s an object, or it’s an image produced by an object in the machine. With his After the Garden series [a 16mm film series Price buried in his garden and let decompose], some of the films he buried couldn’t physically go through the projector once he disinterred them. They were so decomposed the film strips had fused together, fused into objects. They look like baskets or containers. So in this case, there is a literalised result of the film as a sculpture.
TME: The decomposition reminds me of medium collapse. How does the work enter into a discussion about film’s obsolescence, particularly regarding 16mm?
EH: He previously worked in Super 8. Once it was relatively obsolete, he wanted to continue filmmaking without having to buy, process and shoot 16mm film. So he gets junked, already-shot footage from old educational films and such things, and works on it at home using ink he buys at art supply stores. Price doesn’t work in a lab, or print films. He often talks about how each film costs about $10 to make and about having the freedom to make films completely from home. This is a strategy developed out of not being able to process 16mm, which is becoming increasingly hard to do. But now he is totally in control of the process by working this way.
TME: I get the impression that a lot of what we have discussed – the formal aspects and processes of making the work – is revealing about the artist: the fragility of the film stock after it’s been worked on, the violent effects and the myopic, meticulous quality of his studio practice. But I also get the impression that it’d be incredibly difficult to say something concrete about him, that the work both evades and invites autobiographic interpretation. Perhaps this is to do with the abstraction? Is the artist, in this case, fair game?
EH: Sure, Price talks about how in the early phase of his work there was a lot of autobiographical elements. He has a film called Home (1990-1999) that he shot in the home he grew up in, and another film called Mother (1998-1999), which is a portrait of his mother. But what he talks about now is how the themes of the work are becoming more abstracted, so it’s not about his mother, for example, but about motherhood; it’s not about how his family dealt with cancer, but about medicine and illness in general. The early work is more literally autobiographical. Now it draws on themes from the autobiography. It’s become conceptually abstracted. I don’t think it’s necessary to know that autobiographical material now, although it’s useful to think about the arc of Luther Price as an artist as well as the transitions he has made in the process.
Nine Films by Luther Price, curated by Thomas Beard and Ed Halter, 6pm Friday 25 May 2012, ICA Cinema 1 (followed by Q&A with the curators) and Saturday 8.30pm Saturday 26th May 2012, ICA Cinema 2.