Today was the first day of a three day “Berkeley Big Bang” event at the Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA). There were two events and each was quite special. The first was Lynn Hershman Leeson: Virtually Everything, Virtually at the PFA cinema. This was an eight hour marathon showing 16 Hershman films dating from 1977 to 1994. The first three hours (which I watched) provided a glimpse as to why she has attained the stature she has as a filmmaker and as an artist and as, well, an impresario of wonderment.
Up to now my contact with her work had been through her project in Second Life: Life to the Second Power: Animating the Archive in which one of her collaborators is my friend Henrik Bennetson of the Stanford Humanities Lab. So I was delighted to see that Ms Hershman appeared on the screen as RobertaWare, her Second Life Avatar, and gave us a tour of the Dante Hotel while the speaker, Steve Seid, introduced the program.
I watch perhaps half a dozen films a year. So films are always new, fresh things for me and thus I like everything I see. Ms Hershman’s films were no exception. Except that her old films were as fresh and as timeless as anything I’ve seen in the last few years.
Bonwit Teller is a film of Ms Hershman’s Artist’s Talk for the installation of 25 windows at the Bonwit Teller department store in New York in 1977. The film is work of art about the production of a work of art, both of which were created by the same artist. How often doers that happen?
In other films Ms Hershman is keeping a video diary or journal. In Bing and Memories of a Chameleon, Ms Hershman talks about herself. In other films an actor or actual subjects talk about themselves - always straight into the camera. In all the films we are given quite deep personal revelations. Frankly I could never tell whether the people were telling the truth or telling imaginary things. Whatever was being said it always came across as being authentic and as the actual thoughts of the person. Because some of the matters that were discussed were so unfortunate, I do hope that they really were imaginary.
True stories or not, it makes little difference. The films could all have been made yesterday. Here’s the thing: you feel as if these characters are dictating their blogs to you. As Ms Hershman mentions she can say things to the camera that she could not say if there were a person present. There’s a liveness and timelessness to the films that is similar to the stream of consciousness exploding from the WordPress and FaceBook pages.
It does not always happen. It may even be a great exception. But the words of ordinary people can have dignity, eloquence and authenticity and in other cases there words may be totally barbaric. Ms Hirshman seems to have a talent for finding and filming ordinary people expressing both these kinds of words
After leaving the PFA, I walked over to the BAM and listened to Trevor Paglen talk about his astronomical images of spy satellites. His images are pretty and his talk is entertaining. He does de-obfuscate data gathering systems and helps popularize some rather arcane amateur science. The role of the artist is to be a soothsayer or truth-teller, to make us aware of something we had been aware of before. Mr Paglen is trying to tell us something about ourselves. I am just not sure whether knowing the path of a spy satellite is an important thing to know or not or whether a photograph showing the track of a satellite is great art. But Mr Paglen is attracting funding and attention (See Inside the Black Budget) and so it will be interesting to see where Mr Paglen takes his work in the coming years.
All in all, Day 1 was a great start to the Berkeley Big Bang. I look forward to tomorrow…