The annual Migrating Forms film and video festival kicked off on Wednesday with the U.S. premiere of Ryan Trecartin’s Venice Biennale hit, Junior War, Comma Boat, CENTER JENNY, Item Falls (2013). The event continues (through Dec. 17) with a wide spectrum of works by 36 artists from 15 countries. The festival enjoys a reputation for presenting the year’s most vital cinematic work while reviving avant-garde classics. For its fifth edition, it has moved to the Brooklyn Academy of Music from its previous location at Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archives.
Festival curators Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry talked with A.i.A. via email about the highlights from this year’s program and the place of cinema in the art world.
WILLIAM S. SMITH One of the most interesting things about Migrating Forms is that it takes place in an actual movie theater. This isn’t necessarily an obvious location for some of the work, which might have been originally conceived for a gallery presentation or even for YouTube. What’s different about the experience of viewing the Ryan Trecartin piece in the theater, to take just one example?
NELLIE KILLIAN I think a lot of work shows in a gallery or online by default, not because it’s the optimal environment. Even when showing film and video that was conceived for a gallery, we always stick to work that benefits from being screened from beginning to end under the attention that a theatrical setting demands. In the case of Trecartin’s program, he actually re-edited for theatrical presentation works that originally appeared in Venice this summer as multi-channel installations.
KEVIN MCGARRY Generally, I would say that work shown in a gallery space engages the body more while a cinematic event in a theater teleports a viewer into their own mind. If you’re stationary and being fed material in a linear fashion then the experience can be more like reading. The Trecartin screening on Wednesday was pretty intense. Watching two-and-a-half hours of movies in a room full of 200 people who are having more or less the same viewing experience gives the work a new social dimension, compared to what happens when audiences drift in and out of an installation and choose different vantages and positions inside it.
SMITH Your program spans different genres and mediums while also taking a global perspective. But is there an overarching sensibility that guides your selections?
MCGARRY Migrating Forms might be taken as a rejoinder to experimental sidebars at other film festivals, which are really excellent, but, by virtue of the way the encompassing events are structured, can be ghettoized from main-slate programming. So while we are always trying to strike a complicated balance and look into as many genres as possible, these are just avenues for finding new work and new artists. Once we’ve found something that feels urgent and formally interesting, we try not to give it a discernible designation. This is fun for all audiences because there’s almost no one who is equally familiar with all facets of the moving image diaspora . . . and that includes us.
SMITH Much avant-garde cinema of the 1960s and 1970s (or at least the rhetoric surrounding it) was invested in exploring the medium of film. Do you see a lot of artists examining “the digital” in a similar way? What are some of the works that are most exciting to you in that vein?
KILLIAN There are quite a few directors who are explicitly interested in the transition back and forth from analog to digital. In 45 7 Broadway , Tomonari Nishikawa uses very low-fi 16mm techniques to capture the LED signs in Times Square. In A Third Version of the Imaginary  by Benjamin Tiven, a Kenyan archivist’s monologue drifts from the practicalities of conservation to the linguistic difficulties of describing a digital image in Swahili.
MCGARRY I don’t think there’s a specific one-to-one relationship between what was happening in the 1960s and ’70s with investigations of the material structuralism of film and the inquiries that artists exploring digital moving images are making today. But Ed Atkins, Ian Cheng and others are definitely at the forefront of examining “the digital.” Their work pertains not just to the condition of digital video but to contiguous disciplines like poetry in Atkins’s case and games in Cheng’s.
SMITH Some of the works in the festival seem to be in a tradition of personal cinema and diary films. How have those genres evolved in the age of the selfie?
KILLIAN The age of the selfie is a fairly loaded pocket of time! In terms of the ubiquity of recording and sharing, I think you just see more and more work coming out of places with short histories of DIY documentation. The young artist Sarah Abu Abdallah, whose film The Salad Zone , about her routine in rural Saudi Arabia, is definitely testament to this.
MCGARRY New evolutions aside, our revival of selections from Anne Charlotte Robertson’s Five Year Diary [1981-97], a classic of the genre, is one of the absolute highlights of the festival.
SMITH There’s always been a strong link between experimentation in film and video and new modes of dance and performance. What are some of the ways that artists today are capturing and re-presenting live art?
MCGARRY This is exactly why we invited Xavier Cha to give a lecture about her work on Sunday, following the program “Merce Cunningham for Camera.” Cha directed Body Drama  at the Whitney two years ago, a piece in which performers suited up in a menacing contraption that held a camera in position to record their faces while they attempted to enact, amid gallery visitors, the experience of pure horror. The videos that live on as documentation of these performances are really not meant to be shown as artworks, let alone as movies in a cinematic context like this. We would never just show work that’s unintended for a screening like this—that’s why we structured it as a lecture. She will likely address some of the complexities of capturing and representing live art in her presentation.
SMITH So is Sandra Bernhard going to say something outrageous on Saturday when she appears with Hilton Als to discuss Without You I’m Nothing , Jon Boskovich’s film about her off-Broadway show?
KILLIAN Hopefully all our guests will say outrageous things! Ryan Trecartin said that, “Our study of humanity is getting pervier” so we’re off to a good start!
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