Ben Creech created SELF & other Early Works under the supervision of Bruce Jenkins in the MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The video linked above is a version of that work, SELF & other Early Works: the siskel cut. First published in Notes on Videographic Criticism on January 9, 2021.
First, what was it like to have your work screen at the Siskel Film Center?! What was the response? How did it feel to present your work in this format?
Well the first thing I think of for me is the deep associations I have with the Siskel Center personally as a cinephile - I saw Adieu au Langage here, Švankmajer shorts, Marketa Lazarova, Celine and Julie Go Boating, Pialat and Kiarostami and Wong Kar-wai and Panahi ... to celebrate turning 21 I came up to Chicago on a roadtrip and saw Kurosawa’s Ran at the Siskel (and Breathless at The Music Box) - on this trip I realized that I wanted to study in Chicago for grad school and move here (from Kentucky). So the inclusion at the Siskel has deep associations for me personally, it is the feeling of suddenly being among filmmakers you’ve revered for a long time, in a space you’ve long gone to in order to find the edges of cinema. It’s humbling and ego massaging at the same time.
The conditions of the screening meant that there was no in person event, necessary given the threat posed by the pandemic, so it’s a bit hard to tell the response in a conventional sense. I’m interested in encountering a live audience with the work, because a digital screen has this ability to convince us that we see the same images as our fellow film viewer, but my films operate on a perceptual level that will fundamentally be different from person to person (I mean for all films this is true, but we disbelieve it often), so I’m interested in having those various perceptions collide, come into contact. But for now, I’m trying to screen it or expose it to as many digital venues as possible, re-editing slightly with each new location (so far, the mixtape, siskel, and bardo cuts).
I’m really excited to hear individual perceptions, and look forward to in person screenings for precisely this reason.
This work was your MFA thesis. I know many readers of this newsletter are interested in creating this kind of work in an academic context. What was this process like and how did you pitch and execute this project?
Kevin B Lee graduated from here a number of years ago with his Transformers: The Premake as his thesis, so folks here were no stranger to video essays and new forms.
Over and over again I was asked about who I was making the films I was making for, and I honestly didn’t really have an answer. I became hyper focused on finding vehicles for my films to travel in, ways for them to make sense as video essays sometimes, and as cinema sometimes and as art sometimes. Or even music. I’m very influenced by films that seem to come from their soundtracks, like Nosferatu or Bottle Rocket, and then also by musicians that produce cinematic sounds like MF DOOM, Madlib, Eno, etc. So sometimes a video is an essay, but it’s also a Brakhage-like visual music piece. I actually think video essays are heavily influenced by visual musicians like Jodie Mack or Oskar Fischinger or Mary Ann Bute or Brakhage more than we tend to realize. But I digress. I began to sort of imagine that my current films, being so early in what is sure to be a body of work that multiplies tenfold over my life, like I’m gonna make a lot of movies, these are still my baby teeth works, and make the most sense as something that survives for me to get a limited edition Criterion put out about my work. This was the seductive image that I couldn’t get out of my mind, a Criterion both long before and long after the fact.
My ultimate answer and the true thesis object is therefore a limited edition artists book that got delayed because of COVID, but which I intend to release this year, a “bootleg Criterion” boxset of my first 63 videos, collecting and archiving my very first attempts, all the way to my graduation with an MFA. It includes essays on the films submitted by my closest film co-conspirators, some of my own written work, behind the scenes clips, an interview, and a bunch of other special features. It’s a kind of Duchampian appropriation that could be randomly discovered at a used DVD store and briefly confused for a real Criterion set. But it’s also a kind of physical existence that operates on alternative markets, a mechanism for independent film distribution.
When you graduate from SAIC you can either present your work in a cinema or in an art gallery - initially, I was going to go the gallery route and have a constant broadcast projection of different components of the boxset so that it would be different whenever someone visited. With the challenges of COVID, I realized I couldn’t make that work, my desire for interactivity and COVID’s desire to kill humanity are at odds with one another. I never really liked the idea of one video conveying my work, so it was hard to imagine the Siskel working for me, but then I realized an approach I could take that was in sync with the “feature film” mode of the cinematic space of the Siskel while keeping with my jukebox sensibilities, and create a single work composed of smaller works recombined and reworked into new forms for this version. Some of this approach is inspired by Selina Trepp, and from a perspective of media re-use, but it also relieved any one video of holding space for the diversity of work i did at SAIC. I only began making videos about a year before my program started, so most of the work in the boxset is made at school - collectively they trace and model an education and early experiments. But this curation of the works allowed them to also become a narrative. In another sense this is a book of short essays, all covering the same kinds of questions from different angles, tracking a certain period of reflection and creativity, like Barthes’ Mythologies.
You described this work to me as a "concept album." Could you elaborate further on what this work is and what it represents as a body of work? How was it assembled and what was it like to curate your own work in this way? What were the challenges?
So in keeping with this vibe of visual music, I started to think of the work of curation as being the same process a musician undergoes as they finalize their album track list. Some songs get thrown out, some pieces of some songs get incorporated into other songs, sequencing is played with, an array of emotions is laid out for the listener to hear over time in a particular way. Not all albums are concept albums, but I’m taken by albums that work both musically and narratively, where the music collectively has a flow, like what’s going on, where each song is still its own world, but there’s a kind of story unfolding underneath and between the songs. Like Tommy or Yeezus, these are alternative pathways into paying attention to a body of work that allow us to recognize growth, alterity, complexity, in different ways.
So this work then operates under two organizational systems for the concept album mode - it pretends to be a feature length film according to the logics of mainstream cinema production and it dramatizes a “journey of perception” not dissimilar from man with a movie camera. So first, I reworked some videos, but a lot of the sequencing logic is dependent on thinking of some works as variably the pre-titles countdown, the logo sequence, the opening credits, the gradual expansion of possibility, then much quicker collapse, followed by a dark period of reflection occasionally with a post credits sequence. Each video, made for its own purposes as an individual work here finds new purpose in simulating the experience perceptually of watching a feature film, but if all the parts had been replaced.
Second, it opens with simple black and white, I and O, discussion of monads and perception, and gradually expands from the circle form into an awareness of the rectangle frame; this is ruptured by opening trunks first, then split into two, four, and a fluctuating number by the time we reach the Ferris film. This marks my personal arrival at SAIC and the beginning of the expansion of my focus beyond the boundaries of cinema (if cinema contains multi screen videos of paintings already, what paintings act like cinema?). So the next works explore street art, philosophy, horizon lines and push the broken image to its limit in the psycho chop. Finally we arrive at the “SELF” film, which is massive by comparison and seeks to contain a whole history of viewing in the same way that the boxset contains a whole history of making. This exhaustive/exhausting attempt to see and know everything is almost baptized away by broken film fragments, before the eyes are finally given a chance to rest and focus on abstract form with a word to meditate upon, and a short observational documentary clip to reflect, ultimately on the meaning of finding and sampling something.
But it’s also constructed according to a hope that the collisions between different concepts might create meanings and insights that I didn’t have in making it, so that’s like a detailed replay of some stuff on my mind, perhaps it’s saying too much. It’s meant to be poetic and musical and essayistic at the same time, a vehicle in which the works can be perceived in themselves and as part of a parallel pursuit.
What is your hope for this work going forward, and what advice would you give to someone who is trying to find something similar?
My hope for this work is for it to screen periodically in ever new forms. I envision working with programmers and curators at different spots to perhaps cycle out certain works or make changes according to logics specific to their context. For the siskel cut, for example, I added subtitles as playfully mobile text that responds to the video in various ways. I could put in certain videos that have been left out or shorten the work, or extend, and each variation would then be logged. The idea for me is that the boxset is the true “film” (film as hypertext), and so each time we encounter the linear film version of it, it might appear different than we recall. This also really foregrounds the way in which I hope for the real true mode of engagement to be through the boxset, taking time to look at videos in the order one prefers, in the comfort of the home instead of staring at their phone.
The advice I would give to anyone who vibes with this project and considers themselves to be after the same sorts of things is perhaps this: make any and every idea that pops into your head, come up with a way to make it land and then save it. Be responsible for keeping your own archive, because once folks respond to a piece of it, there is proof of the possibility of their getting more of it. But some pieces may not make sense where they go right away. Even if they go nowhere it’s good practice, and you become better at expressing the next thing. So no idea is too small, especially for a video. Films that some of us will take on our iPhones are equivalent to things we cherish and have almost lost from Joann Elam and Shirley Clarke. We have to choose even the smallest of our works, and in so doing choose ourselves.