CINEMA AS AN EVENT: An Interview with Light Industrys Ed Halterby Rachael Rakes and Leo Goldsmith
In 2007 Ed Halter and Thomas Beard began presenting film and electronic art under the name Light Industry, first in a raw space in a dim corner of Industry City, Brooklyn, and later in a downtown storefront on Livingston Street. This month, after nearly a year of nomadic programming at places such as Anthology Film Archives, ISSUE Project Room, and Cleopatra’s, Light Industry returns with its weekly schedule of experimental, rare, lost, and recontextualized film and electronic art, now to be screened in a longer-term home in Greenpoint: a 1,250-foot exhibition and office space, which they’ll be sharing with fellow cultural organizations (and previous roommates) Triple Canopy and the Public School.
We sat down with Halter to talk about Light Industry’s plans for the future, as well as its role in the evolution of New York City’s alternative film and video programming.
Rachael Rakes: So, tell us about the new space in Greenpoint. How did you get it?
Ed Halter: We looked at over 90 spaces collectively. Members of Triple Canopy and Light Industry and the Public School, all of us were out searching. In the end, we found this place on Craigslist.
Rakes: And you have a five-year lease? Now that you have a place to be for a while, are you going to be sticking to your once a week, event-based programming, or will you be getting into installations, other forms of exhibition?
Halter: Light Industry from its inception was always thought of as a space for events, not for exhibitions. We think of cinema as an event, not an object. The one-night-a-week structure is something very thought-out. We’ve tried different things over the years. There was a short period of time in Industry City when we did six shows a month, which doesn’t sound like a huge change, adding two more shows a month, but we found it was actually enormously different. Something about the balance of the week went off, so we went back to once a week on average. Having a single day a week provides much more focus for that individual artist or program.
Rakes: So you are not competing against yourself.
Halter: Exactly. And then of course because so many things happen in New York, you are competing against more things the more shows you have. So if you have a dependable once-a-week thing, people get into the habit of going.
Leo Goldsmith: Is there a five-year plan to go along with your five-year lease?
Halter: We do have some general ideas—including some boring things, like increasing our fundraising—but we don’t have any plans to become a repertory cinema with multiple shows a week. What we want to do is grow without becoming a different kind of organization. We feel that moving into that model, becoming something like what Anthology Film Archives does, is just not really necessary. We like the way we do things now, and so we feel the next stage of growth for us will be publishing.
Rakes: Can you talk more about your publication plans?
Halter: We have lots of different concepts. Anthologies are one idea, and monographs on individual artists seem to be something that is in need, especially for film and video. Also, re-publishing essential things that have fallen out of print that have to do with film and electronic art.
Rakes: Are you looking to create things that will have ISBNs and have the potential to be sold outside of the space?
Halter: We would try to do some of them as books, depending on the kind of publication.
Rakes: You’ve been working with Triple Canopy and the Public School for, I guess, a year now, but are you integrating more, or continuing living as three autonomous organizations that occasionally throw parties?
Halter: We see ourselves as roommates, and after all roommates sometimes throw parties together! But we remain three separate organizations, housed under the same roof. Right now, we don’t have any upcoming collaborations scheduled, but you know they just happen naturally—they come out of our ongoing conversations. One thing that will be different about this space from 177 Livingston is that we went into that space thinking, “Oh, we’ll also use this as an office. We’ll have meetings here; we’ll work out of the space.” But a number of things kept us from doing that. One was that, for example, we couldn’t get the Internet there for a long time. In Greenpoint, we’ll all be able to truly work out of the space as a collective office, and out of that, things will come.
Goldsmith: And what about Greenpoint? It sounds like you kind of hit on Greenpoint more or less because it was just where the right space was.
Halter: Well, it was one of the neighborhoods we were looking at. In Greenpoint, there’s still relatively affordable commercial real estate. And we like being in neighborhoods that aren’t oversaturated with the arts already.
Rakes: Greenpoint has a strange lack of theaters—there are galleries, but few exhibition spaces.
Halter: You’ve got Cleopatra’s and Real Fine Arts, but that’s about it. And it’s weird, because so many artists live there, so many people interested in film live there. So that bodes well overall for us.
Goldsmith: I’ve never forgiven you for moving away from Industry City.
Halter: I loved that space. It had a lot of technical problems that maybe weren’t visible, but you may have felt them. There was a real heating problem in the winter, which we discovered the hard way. But in most other ways it was a beautiful space.
Rakes: It’s amazing that you were able to create something that was so popular there, off the beaten path.
Halter: It surprised us as much as anybody. Thomas and I went in planning, “Okay, it’s going to be slow the first few months; we have to build an audience over time,” but it wasn’t like that. We had large crowds from the very first show. To this day we don’t totally understand why it hit so fast, but timing must have been a part of it. In 2008, it was a novelty that there was something like that happening in that part of Brooklyn, or maybe even Brooklyn at all. Also I think that that was a moment when many in the art world were seriously looking to cinema. I’m just speculating here, but it was after what was felt to be a mini crash in the art market. Maybe because of this, there was a desire to look at other models for art outside of the market, outside the galleries.
Goldsmith: How do you think that that’s changed since you started—the screen culture in New York generally, or the relationship between film and art?
Halter: One thing is that there certainly are other things happening in Brooklyn and elsewhere; there’s much more activity now in terms of film. You’ve got a number of new cinemas in Williamsburg. UnionDocs is a lot more active than when we started; you’ve got Queer/Art/Film in the city that emerged after us; Red Channels; the Museum of the Moving Image reopened.
With Light Industry, we set out to create a crossroads between different kinds of communities of the moving image. Thomas and I talk about this a lot: that we want experimental cinema and documentary and the academy and the art world and adventurous international cinema to come together on one calendar, in a way that we hadn’t seen places doing before. The response from the art world has in some ways been the strongest. The moving image is everywhere in the art world, but remains, even in its prominence, strangely marginal at the same time. Certainly the market for moving-image works is not anything close to the market for, say, painting, and that likely is never going to happen, but at least there’s a discourse about it that’s emerging. Sometimes I’ll talk to extremely knowledgeable curators, and it’s very clear from the beginning they don’t have a very sophisticated notion of what it means to exhibit film or video, particularly the technical operations of running moving-image work in a cinematic setting. But I feel that, four years in, we are meeting more people who have that knowledge, and it is penetrating the art world, which is a good thing because it means artists will be represented better, with more care.
Rakes: It’s interesting, though, that there’s this trend for experimental work to be shown as installation now more so than as a single-channel exhibited film. What do you think about that and how that affects the cultural distribution of the moving image?
Halter: That’s a good question. It’s a big problem, and one that we’ve thought about a lot. I think the unfortunate thing about installation is that—well, of course there are works made for installation, but too often it seems that it’s used as just default mode. It’s like, “How do we show this? I don’t know. Paint the room black, and put it in there. Put a bench in there, and loop it.” Now cinema has become this trend in the art world, it’s become accepted, but not given a home. Artists working in film and video are brought into the gallery, into the museum, but not really given a physical space that’s really appropriate to what they’re doing. I can’t count how many times I’ve walked into a museum and a video is showing, its image washed out in full light, literally thrown into a corner. This is not only frustrating for the viewer, I think, quite honestly, it is damaging to the development of young artists. They’re not given that kind of interplay with an audience that’s required to understand what the form they’ve chosen is doing. You know, more than once at Light Industry artists in the audience have said to me, “God, it’s so daunting; people have to watch the whole thing.”
Rakes: The captive versus the non-captive audience.
Halter: This interplay with the audience is something the cinema provides that the gallery just has a hard time doing. The other problem with the gallery is—what is the social space of the gallery? Well, the opening. But the opening is not really about looking at the art, and the opening is also about pre-selecting people—usually people’s friends, or colleagues, or those who have professional connections in some ways, so it’s not really an open audience. It’s a social event, but, in a strange way, not directly about the art on view itself. It’s about the artist as a social person, or the gallery as a social nexus. But the cinema is interesting because at the moment it becomes a social space, that social experience is about having a direct and complete experience of the work at the same time.
Goldsmith: One of the first of your events that I went to was Branden Joseph talk on Tony Conrad’s work, and he actually touched on these questions of how moving image works in a gallery, or doesn’t, or how certain artists have worked that out. You’ve also provided a space for projection artists like Bruce McClure, and Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder.
Halter: For us I think those are good examples, because we’re often called upon to critique the gallery the way that I’ve been just saying—and a critique is necessary—but we’ve never conceived of Light Industry as some sort of institutional critique organization. I mean, we primarily see ourselves in a more positive vein, that we’re continuing a tradition that we love that stretches from the cine-clubs of the ’20s, to Amos and Marcia Vogel’s Cinema 16, to the Filmmakers Cinematheque that Jonas Mekas ran in the ’60s, and especially the Collective for Living Cinema, which operated from the late ’70s to the early ’90s. We think about Light Industry as continuing this lineage, and trying to consider what that tradition can mean for us now.
We’re not trying to revive the past; we’re trying to look to the past to figure out, how does cinema function now? What are its limitations? What is it working for and against? So our primary concern isn’t simply an institutional critique of the art world, although one could say there’s an implicit critique just in doing something differently. But, you know, people who come more from the film world don’t see us as a critique necessarily. Instead, they think, ah, this is how the work is supposed to show. It feels like an appropriate space, in the sense of the scale and intimacy. It’s a satisfying and necessary experience—it’s the kind of experience that Thomas and I want to have ourselves, so that’s why we do it.
Goldsmith: Another one of the really early things I saw was your screening of Peter Emmanuel Goldman’s Echoes of Silence, which was actually introduced by Jonas. He introduced it by asking for donations from the audience so that you could buy a proper movie screen.
Halter: That’s funny, because Thomas and I laugh about what Jonas said a lot. But that’s also one of those conscious decisions, to project on the wall, because we don’t want our screen to become a fixed object in the space. Bringing cinema back down to its most minimal elements makes you think about what, in fact, constitutes the cinema. We reduce it to just the projected image, the chairs, a set time and place. It’s not about being a building called “The Cinema,” but that the cinema is a social situation—and, again, an event.
Goldsmith: Are there any other technical bells and whistles in the new space, or is it going to be similar to the old set-up?
Halter: We’ll have HVAC, which I’m really excited about. So, that will be a huge revolution for the space [laughs].
Rakes: Do you want to talk about your upcoming shows?
Halter: On September 27 we’re having an event with Philippe-Alain Michaud who is the film curator at the Centre Pompidou. He has been working on the experimental films of Brancusi—and very few people know that Brancusi made experimental films. They’ve never been shown in North America. Michaud is going to bring a print of one of the films, give a brief talk about the whole corpus of work, and also show a film made by Paul Sharits that was about a Brancusi sculpture which Philippe-Alain says has interesting resonances with Brancusi’s own filmmaking. We’re also doing an event the first week of October with a writer and artist from Chicago, Martine Syms, who runs a space there called Golden Age. She wrote a book called Implications and Distinctions: that’s about what she calls the “contemporary race film,” films made today by black filmmakers and marketed to black audiences.
Rakes: Like Tyler Perry.
Halter: Exactly. And other, less famous directors making films in that vein. One of her arguments is that these films can be compared to the race films of the segregation era. So we’re planning to screen a print of Oscar Micheaux’s The Exile, the first African-American sound film, which she’ll introduce and talk about. Syms argues that Perry continues in some ways the project that Micheaux begins. In addition, it looks like the 16mm print of The Exile we’re getting will be one belonging to Ken Jacobs, which would have shown at the Collective for Living Cinema back in the day.
Light Industry will open its doors at 155 Freeman Street in September. See lightindustry.org for details.