The Art of Looking: an interview with Deborah Stratman
Mike Hoolboom
When she raises her camera, seeing is already thinking. Yes sure there is the raw delight in watching the light well up inside the body of the visible, but always these views are pointed (in the Roland Barthes sense of the punctum, they are sharp, they poke, they wound their viewer, which is her first of all, and then us.)

She has tried different kinds of making, there are documentaries about street racing in Chicago, a circus troupe in China, and found footage missives which take aim at a gendered divide, and more besides. She is not like a boy who casts the same variations of fingerprint again and again, and yet, at the same time, in all her work there is a quality of watchful attention, an outraged politic, an experience lived through the body and searched out again through her camera double. It is only space constraints that keep us from presenting Deborah’s loquacious, witty insights into each and every one of her movies, the real estate of the page permits discussion of only three. So I invite you to imagine the before and after tellings, as if arriving at the scene of an event which is already underway. We enter mid-stride, in the midst. A restless searching, an appetite for pictures without end.

MH: Energy County (14:30 min, 2003) is a polemic shot in Texas that decries America’s reliance on oil. Highways connect experience, traders bid prices higher, and telephone wires carry ghost voices yodeling for times that never happened. Brown water bays, oilrigs from past and present and a restless consuming fire are collaged with America’s first invasion of Iraq. The biblical undertones of “security” and “defence” (newspeak for invasion, government overthrow and systemic torture) are laid over multiply exposed refineries at night. Christian radio takes aim at an endless enemy; yes, it’s well observed, but aren’t you preaching to the choir here? Don’t the rhetorics of this work ensure that it will find a home on the avant safe circuit, far from the religious right, and so help preserve another comforting split between “us” (the good people, who require energy to deliver our good messages), and “them,” the ones busy waging war and pumping oil?

DS: This is a hard video for me to write about because I’ve always felt a little embarrassed by its didacticism and its easy targets. “Preaching,” be it to the choir or otherwise, is something I generally recoil from. I guess the simplest way to qualify its existence is that it served as a release valve for the exasperation I was feeling at our state of national affairs. I made it extremely quickly, a reactionary response to a reactionary situation. My lurching for tractable targets is exactly what the men are doing at the end of the film, burning the flag. Or what the cop (you only hear his voice) is doing when he stops me because I have a camera on a bridge, profiling me as a terrorist. I think the video fails in that this is not evident, but I did want to include and implicate myself in this tendency towards angry dumbness. It’s my car after all that’s being pumped with gas. And the buzz of those electric trees sounds an awful lot like the buzz of my editing drive.

I think the best thing that came out of this piece was the work I’ve been currently up to. It’s hard to qualify yet, but in general, it’s about the culture of elevated threat. And just what exactly it is that this word Freedom represents to people. I’ve broadened the field of Americans I speak and listen to. Whether this will ultimately free the film from being stuck in the “avant safe” circuit seems doubtful. Because I have no interest in making a conventional documentary, and my aesthetic bag of tricks remains more or less the same as it’s been for the last twenty years. Which means that the venues available to me will inevitably be art houses and festivals and alternative euro channels and experimental film classrooms. But, and this is very important, I think when I show the film to the people actually in it — machine gun owners, Federal Border agents, retirees in their fully loaded RVs, high school football fans   these people will all say, “Yeah, that’s what freedom means to me.” So while I personally might be suspect of how much we have lost or surrendered in the name of “freedom,” I hope that opinion will lurk more patiently in the background.

In terms of what experimental film can achieve in a political world, there’s a passage I really love from Alain Badiou’s essay What is a Poem? “Dianoia* is the thought that traverses, the thought that links and deduces. The poem itself is affirmation and delectation—it does not traverse, it dwells on the threshold. The poem is not a rule-bound crossing, but rather an offering, a lawless proposition. […] Philosophy cannot begin, and cannot seize the Real of politics, unless it substitutes the authority of the matheme for that of the poem.” Or as Charles Bowden puts it, “What is explained can be denied, but what is felt cannot be forgotten.”

Ultimately, my frustration with the monologue inherent to the cinematic contract resulted in pursuing other kinds of art-making alongside my filmmaking. Film demands a mute viewer; someone signing on to leave her own temporal space in order to enter mine. I both love and struggle with the totalitarianism behind this fact. So my non-film work tends to be encountered by accident, requiring participation or collaboration to be activated, approaching something closer to a dialogue. It is publicly situated work that doesn’t rely on the expectation of the sublime, as one would have upon entering a museum, or a movie theater. The nature of the encounter is more democratic. I’m not sure that film viewing can ever be political in the same way.

(*discursive thought, or argument and reason as opposed to intuition)

MH: In Order Not To Be Here (33 min, 2002) begins with a terrifying surveillance video offering an aerial view of police (or border patrol? Soldiers?) gathering up folks in the dark. The camera has a voice (the sound of the eye) that is used to locate the people-targets, and guide cops on the ground. And of course, for those trying to cross the border, it similarly sees what they can’t see, that their moments of escape are rapidly dwindling. Where did you find this footage?

DS: The footage you see at the beginning of the film came from the Collier County Sheriff’s Department in Florida. To get it, I placed a lot of cold phone calls to a lot of sheriff’s departments. I told them I was an instructor (true), teaching a class (true), about new ways that photography and video are employed by law enforcement to aid with forensics or in pursuit of their “targets” (not exactly true—though a few years later I did teach a photo class about the history of the image as evidence called “Collecting Visible Evidence”). >

I was very specific with the officers about the footage I was looking for. It needed to be an assailant on foot. The discrepancies in scale and power between the robotic police machine eye and the vulnerable metabolic body had to be explicit. It needed to be at night, employing infrared so the figures became specters. The pursuit needed to be as long as possible. My line was that I was giving a lecture where I wanted to have some visual examples of just what FLIR* technology was capable of. (*A FLIR unit is a thermal imaging infrared camera. In this case, it was gyroscopically mounted on the undercarriage of the helicopter and controlled by a tape operator on the inside with a kind of joystick - basically an airborne Steadicam.) What I was trolling these law agencies for was the image I ended up staging at the end of the film. I wanted pursuit footage that followed a runner who jumps in the water. Unsurprisingly, nobody had this, so I decided to shoot it myself. Also, and this is critical, none of the departments had footage, at least that they were willing to admit to, of the pursuant escaping. The film wouldn’t work if the fleeing runner didn’t ultimately shake his pursuers.

At one point, a Florida agent thought he had exactly what I was looking for, and sent me a VHS compilation tape including the scene I use in the opening. The dogs were a revelation for me. They brought up such tactile mental imagery, escapees running through swamps, heaving breath, acrid smells, the terror of knowing the pack had your scent. And they were a portent of the menacing dog footage that occurs later in the film. I was also taken by the fumbling blindness of the K-9 officers trying to heed the directives of their airborne colleagues, whose frustration is hilariously evident.

When I was first collecting this footage, border crossing had not entered my mind at all. But it suggested itself anew with each viewing. I’m pleased that it leans towards that interpretation.

MH: You follow up with a night time vigil showing emptied streets, walls, police wagons passing at night, a searchlight illuminating moments of a middle class home front, and then moments of the perfect life inside, the overstuffed chair, the recipe book held open by a machine. The fragile compact of home, walled up, fortified, dogs baying at night. We don’t know who you are, but stay away from our overstocked kitchens, our garages bursting with cars, the booty lining our closets. Where are we and why did you shoot only at night? What led you to render this exposition of everyday fears, recasting the bright facades of American commerce as menace and threat?

DS: Yes, the images are a kind of mute, unyielding vigil. They hold out tensely for some unstated spiritual shift, as if I were filming from a hunting blind. It’s the emptiness of the locations that goads the camera to continue the vigil. I chose to shoot at night because I was relying on the deserted sites to suggest a metaphysical hollowness. As a kid who grew up in the suburbs, this was a feeling I struggled with for years. These are not spaces designed for human bodies or interaction. They are not walking communities. In fact, they’re not communal in any way. People move from their houses to their garages to their cars and leave for work inside their steel and glass bubble. The absence of a public commons removes the soul from these places. They have about as much heart as a parking lot.

This need to portray emptiness was very much a reflection upon my own psyche, the lack of conviction I had been feeling, the loneliness of being human. For a long time the film wasn’t going to be about the suburbs at all. It was the hollowness I was after. Corporate and suburban planning eventually became the vehicle through which I felt I could get at this void. It’s a problem, no? How to convey spiritual bankruptcy or moral hollowness via material things? How to film numbingly bland places without boring the audience to death?

There’s a secondary reason for filming at night. The sites take on renewed depth with all those different color temperature light sources, and facades falling off into darkness. Plus, I’m extremely partial to the eerie buzz of fluorescents. I tried shooting during the day and it was sickeningly flat and quotidian.

MH: The film ends with a seven-minute sequence showing a man running at night, seen in negative, while newscasters describe a house fire and cop shooting in Los Angeles County. I’m guessing you staged this to rhyme the opening, then laid the radio audio underneath. Can you talk about these decisions and how you approached the shoot?

DS: The audio is actually a combination of three sources. One layer is the live audio recorded during the shoot through the helicopter’s two-way system. If you listen closely, you can hear me giving directives to the camera operator. I was sitting next to him in the helicopter. You can also hear static and snippets of air traffic communication. The second layer is electronic music composed by Kevin Drumm, which riffs off the sound of the helicopter. The emphatic pulsing literally raises your heartbeat, which is why that final sequence is so gripping. It’s totally physiological. Kevin is an incredible composer. I discovered his work by accident in a record store in New York, and it turned out that he was virtually my neighbor in Chicago. I contacted him out of the blue to see if he would be game to collaborate on a film project, and to my (and the film’s) good fortune he agreed. The third layer is sound taken from a CNN news report about an event that occurred in Valencia, California where I happened to be teaching just prior. Valencia is an upper middle class, extraordinarily ‘master planned’ community about forty minutes north of Los Angeles. Just after I left, a local who had been passing himself off as law enforcement, and who had amassed a huge arsenal of weapons, had been found out. Officers and then eventually SWAT teams were sent in to try and extract him from the house. He died inside rather than surrender his fortress and identity.>

I included this story because I wanted the running figure to potentially be this Valencia man. At one point one of the interviewed agents states, “Maybe he did escape, maybe he did survive the fire. We want to make sure it’s safe …” I actually wanted the running man to be many things. I wanted him to be us. I wanted him to be an illegal immigrant. I wanted him to be an escaped slave. I wanted him to be a Columbine killer (the full fourteen-minute shot actually opens with the runner bursting out of a school). I wanted him to be the guy we’re rooting for to shake the overbearing panoptica of contemporary society. I wanted him to be the human who is missing from the rest of the film. The one we’re placing all our bets on to make it out of our hyper-controlled environments. The scene was also an oblique way of paying homage to JG Ballard’s novella The Running Man. His location descriptions resonated strongly while I was conceptualizing the film. Like Ballard, I’m very interested in the cyclic relationship between the desire for safety and the fanning of fears.

The running man is the core of the film. He was played by Joaquin de la Puente, who was the only person I knew at the time in good enough physical shape, and crazy enough, to run so far without keeling over. I didn’t have enough money to rent a helicopter, so I fished around for months until I found a local guy who contracted his helicopter to Fox news for their daily traffic reports. He offered a free ride if I could map out the shoot to happen on the way back from the morning news. Joaquin and I scouted around near the heliport and mapped out a run that would include a school, suburban lawns, parking lots, a high voltage power corridor, traffic crossings and ultimately a river. The pilot called a few days before we were supposed to go up and said he couldn’t do it. Fox didn’t want the liability. Then he called me back a day later and said, what the hell, he’d take me up on his own time. This still seems incredible to me. We did the whole shoot, river and all, and on the flight home I asked the tape operator to rewind the tape so we could check it. He did, but there was nothing there! He had forgotten to press record!! The pilot was so pissed he had veins popping out of his neck. The camera operator had never screwed up a shot in thirteen years of working with this pilot. It was just one of those bizarre flukes. So we get back to the airport, and the van drives up with Joaquin all wet and the other crew and I have to tell them that we didn’t get the shot. Joaquin started laughing because he thought I was joking. None of us could process it actually. The pilot had gone storming off and was throwing trashcans in the hanger. We were all very dejected, especially me because I knew I didn’t have a film without this shot. After about ten minutes the pilot came out and very calmly and professionally stated it was their mistake, and we would re-shoot. I almost started crying I was so relieved. Joaquin couldn’t shoot again just then because he was too exhausted, though in hindsight, a more beleaguered runner might have looked better. We returned a week later for the take you now see. This time, they had to remove a seat in the helicopter so I could fit because in the interim I had been run over by a truck and was in a full plaster leg cast. But that’s another story…

MH: Exterior views of a country house with barely heard child whispers and a lonely piano opens The Magician’s House (6 minutes 2007). We see a mailbox announcing that we are in Ithaca, a view looking out from the house, as if the house could look, a shed siding a forest of a backyard. It takes time to make an approach, to enter, and you allow us this time. An emptied chair rocks as an airplane goes by (on the soundtrack) and an organ tries a few notes. The chair grows more animated as the shot goes on (are you playing this in reverse?) A sunset photograph by a window (as if to remind the window of the view) brings us to the mysterious closing shot: a spot of trampled grass, a mark, a sign left behind. You never show us a person (oh wait, there was a photographic portrait in a book, glimpsed upside down), but no one alive and moving, though everything here feels animated. Can you talk about the impetus for this visitation, the very carefully structured soundtrack, the emptied portrait vessel of the house?

DS: Last night I was watching a print of Agnes Varda’s film >Cleo From 5 to 7. In it, there’s a scene where Cleo sings about being lonely and feeling like a house full of empty rooms. It happens at her moment of transition from being a fetishized feminine spectacle to more of a participant-observer. I found myself moved by the song, and that line in particular. I’ve always been sweet on filmmakers who let physical spaces be avatars for psychic spaces. Tsai Ming-Liang is a genius in this regard and Tarkovsky of course: too many filmmakers to start listing really. The Magicians House is my little homage to those films. It lets the house, both interior and exterior, become a topographic mood map. And in this case, my mood was sad, a bit spooked, reverent, adrift.

Why this particular house is a bit more complicated. A filmmaker friend of mine used to live there. He is someone who always struck me as alchemical in his practice. In fact, he’s never seemed quite of our century. I was invited there as part of a small film tour I was on, but by the time I arrived, there had been a stunning series of emotional, physical and professional cataclysms in his life. And so he was no longer in the house. He had quite literally fled.

So there I was, feeling a bit forlorn anyway thanks to my own (unrelated) relationship woes, walking around this evacuated farmhouse, acutely aware of the tangible presence it seemed to harbor. Not necessarily of this missing friend per se, but rather a more ambiguous energy—something that had been until moments before, furiously, absolutely filling the place. It was a strange experience. I decided that next morning to shoot two rolls of film, limiting myself to the house and its yard, and I used virtually every image I shot. By far the best shooting ratio I’ve ever managed. It wasn’t until months later that I recorded another friend walking through an entirely different house at night. His are the footsteps heard in the film. In terms of sound design, it never takes much to suggest a universe. Like Bresson says, the whistle of a train imprints upon us the whole station.

The piano music was an odd coincidence. I had recently discovered and fallen for Georges Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartman’s deceptively simple piano pieces. Gurdjieff himself was a mystic who thought that people wandered around like sleepwalkers, never seeing reality. He composed music to be used as a kind of backdrop for a series of dances he devised to help people be alert to the present moment. I generally hate using entire pieces of music, but decided to use this particular song because I felt the mood suited the house and the film. I only later learned that the title of the song translated as The Struggle of the Magicians. This blew my mind, as I’d already arrived at the film’s title.

The upside-down portrait is actually the face of Athanasius Kircher, an amazing 17th century figure who is credited, among myriad other things, with inventing the Sorcerer’s Lamp, or Magic Lantern—one of the very first cinematic devices. His portrait was printed onto a sheet of plastic taped to the window. There was a little magnifying glass in the room through which I shot the image. For me, Kircher and the fleeting image you see of a projector’s illuminated sprocket wheel become quiet sentinels to the passing epoch of plastic film.

Oh, and yes, I optically printed the rocking chair in reverse.

A la Cocteau.